Tom Wolfe has always had a seismologist's sixth sense for the subtle shifts in our cultural tectonic plates that signify major social tremors ahead. He wrote about Southern stock-car legend Junior Johnson and coined the phrase "good ol' boys" years before NASCAR became the nation's fastest growing sport. He hopped aboard the psychedelic Further bus with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters long before the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. He lifted the veil on NASA in The Right Stuff, modern art in The Painted Word, architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House and high-tech communications in Hooking Up, sensing their emerging significance on the American scene.
So what's the man in white doing back in school? College parents might well wonder after nervously thumbing through I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe's first novel in six years and his first expedition into the shadowy subculture of campus life.
Charlotte Simmons, a beautiful but sheltered genius from rural North Carolina, enrolls in Dupont University, a sports powerhouse where the coed dorms rock 24/7 with beer, bongs and recreational sex. She befriends a motley crew: Hoyt, scion of an old-money family; Beverly, a Groton grad with a lust for lacrosse players; Jojo, the lone Caucasian on the godlike basketball team; and Adam, a militant student journalist. As her classmates battle for self-knowledge amid the status, power and hype, Simmons remains true to herself in a way that shapes the lives of everyone around her.
In an interview from his home in New York, Wolfe says he sensed social shifts at work on campuses. "This is the way I love to start a project, from things that I've heard but I haven't seen in print," he says. "I gradually began hearing stories about the racial and sexual scene as a result of coed dorms, and I was surprised to find how little there was written about any of this."
Inspired by Coming of Age in New Jersey, anthropologist Michael Moffatt's account of an undercover stint in a Rutgers dorm, Wolfe spent weeks in the dorms, frat houses and student unions of college sports powers Stanford, Michigan, UNC-Chapel Hill and Florida.
Of course, a 74-year-old freshman has to make some sartorial concessions. "I wore a necktie but I didn't wear a white suit. I usually wore a navy blazer, white pants and black shoes with white spats-effect built into them. I was very much undercover," he chuckles. "I went to many fraternity parties and hung around the dorms. Most of them had no idea who I was; all they knew was I was too old to be a member of the Drug Enforcement Administration."
To his surprise, the sexual freedom that his graduating class (Washington & Lee, 1951; Ph.D. Yale, 1957) could only dream about has become a nightmare for many college students today. What's more, Wolfe says most universities have abandoned the concept of in loco parentis (surrogate parenting) for fear of litigation.
Wolfe spent weeks in the dorms, frat houses and student unions of college sports powers Stanford, Michigan, UNC-Chapel Hill and Florida.
"The pressure of coed dorms is not precisely what one would think; it's not boys in boxer shorts sprinting across the hallway to jump into bed with some girl. In fact, that's looked down upon; it's called dorm-cest. If you're accused of having sex, or hooking up with someone in your own dorm, you're considered a pretty bad case."
"What it does is create a terrible sexual pressure on the undergraduates, and it is hardest on women because they no longer have any automatic wall to step behind if they don't like the situation. Today, if a girl is a virgin, she hides it, which is another 180-degree turn."
Wolfe's new novel will likely rekindle his ongoing feud with Mssrs. John Irving, Norman Mailer and John Updike, who lit into his last novel, A Man in Full. Wolfe, who together with Hunter S. Thompson founded "new journalism" in the 1960s by applying fiction techniques to reportage, remains a staunch proponent of naturalism, of going out and hunting up content, something he maintains those literary lions can't or won't do today.
"I think there were two things at play. One, I think they were afraid that the success of A Man in Full on top of the success of The Bonfire of the Vanities would establish naturalism as the way out of the waning state of the novel. But on top of that, I think there may have been just a bit of old-fashioned jealousy. I have never before known of a situation in which any three well-known novelists attacked anything at the same time, anything."
"Writers like to think that genius is 95 percent your own imagination and just five percent of the necessary play, the material. But as you get older, you begin to realize genius is about 65 to 70 percent the material and about 30 to 35 percent talent or something inside of yourself. So many writers are not willing to face up to that today."
Jay MacDonald has interviewed hundreds of authors for BookPage.
Tom Wolfe on...
The writer Thomas Wolfe: "I always thought my first book would get reviews along the lines of, Tom Wolfe, certainly not to be confused with the great novelist from Asheville, North Carolina.' But fortunately for me, his stock had waned a bit by the time I appeared on the scene. I think it will rise again. He's one of my absolute favorite writers."
His feud with John Irving: "He told a German interviewer that he had won an Oscar for the script for The Cider House Rules and . . . he can sit at home and stroke his Oscar and he bet I wished I could do the same thing. I told her actually I don't; I think there's a name for that, sitting at home stroking your Oscar, and I'm not sure I want to be involved in it."
The birth of new journalism: "For 10 years, I was a newspaper reporter, and probably would have continued except that within the space of eight months, two newspapers sank beneath me, the New York Herald Tribune and its successor, the World Journal Tribune. When the second one went under, I figured it was just time to go out on my own."
The death of the novel: "I think the novel in this country is fast headed for extinction as a major medium. Young people in college begin to turn more and more to film if they want stories, and begin to look at film as the dominant art form. The total difference is not the popularity of the medium, but the fact that the best, most talented novelists have given up on the old idea of going out into the country and writing about what is really going on."