A long, long time ago, generations before this era of coed bathrooms and animalistic “hooking up,” Tom Wolfe was a college student himself, at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, and there was a possibility still of ... romance.
This was a half-century before he would decide to chronicle the “lurid carnival” that is campus life today in his new novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” imagining, as a 74-year-old man, what it’s like to be an 18-year-old girl in that orgiastic scene -- a risky leap even for someone who has made his name putting himself inside the minds of vagabond dopers and astronauts and Wall Street Masters of the Universe.
Before all that he was T.K. Wolfe Jr., a kid from Richmond trying to both fit in and stand out at a school that promoted Robert E. Lee’s ideal of the Southern gentleman, where coat and tie was the rule and housemothers presided over the fraternities. There were other housemothers waiting -- along with sign-in sheets -- when Washington and Lee men road-tripped “over the mountain” to the girls’ schools designed to mold proper Southern women, places such as Hollins and Sweet Briar.
“You almost had to give your blood type when you went there,” recalls James Roberts, 77, a Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity mate of Wolfe’s. If a visitor somehow got by a sorority’s parlor, a cry would echo out, “Man in the hall!”
Another W&L; student of that time, the writer-to-be Tom Robbins, remembers his excitement before a blind date with a girl named Cozy -- that name alone gave him goose bumps. And though the date didn’t lead to “anything fulfilling” it did teach Robbins the truth of a French saying, how the best thing about an affair is the anticipation, the “walking up the stairs.”
To his contemporaries, the young Tom Wolfe was a model Washington and Lee man, an athlete (baseball), scholar and gentleman, just with, not surprisingly, an eccentric flair. He may not yet have discovered the plantation suits that would become his trademark, but he had discovered hats, and what other college guy walked around with a fedora on his head?
He also was a teetotaler on a campus whose social life revolved around drinking, one way college life has not changed. A frat brother once got on his knees and begged Wolfe to take a sip -- he was making them all look bad. Wolfe demurred, however, and he may have dredged up that memory when he pondered the pressure on kids today to, in a different sense, “join in.”
“The word that comes to mind is ‘courtly,’ ” recalls another person who knew him in his salad days, Carol McCabe, then a wide-eyed freshman, fresh off the farm, at Sweet Briar.
She became Wolfe’s partner in a real-life story that seems like something out of a mushy ‘40s movie -- nothing like the tales of modern college life that fill his novel being published Tuesday.
In 1951, as he was about to graduate, Wolfe wrote a story for the campus literary magazine about a boy and a girl on a bus. The boy wants to strike up a conversation, and the girl wants him to approach. But the boy can’t act. They miss their chance.
After the story came out, the young author got his first fan letter, from some Sweet Briar girl, asking, “How on Earth did you know what I was thinking?”
There was no time to meet before Wolfe left to begin graduate work at Yale, but he and McCabe began writing to each other. Finally they decided on a rendezvous at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Five decades later, McCabe recalls how Wolfe carried a book under his arm, Faulkner, so she’d recognize him. Wolfe recalls looking around and seeing “this very good-looking blond in a trench coat.”
She found him gracious and sophisticated, often making references to writers and philosophers. He was like the character in his story, though, “tentative ... self-effacing ... certainly not aggressive,” perhaps not realizing that she, like the girl in the story, was open to more.
He recalls the encounter as “intensely romantic,” but he had to continue on to Richmond. While they dated some after that, meeting here and there, it was hard with them living far apart, and even in the parlance of that day you wouldn’t call it “going steady,” he says.
They went on to separate marriages and raising families, without having done anything, says McCabe, now 72, “that required a bed.”
“Obviously,” she says, “times are different.”
A beauty amid the beasts
Wolfe’s 676-page book tells the tale of an “innocent beauty” from poor North Carolina hill country who has been taught by her momma that you don’t get pushed into anything. But her resolve is tested at the fictitious Dupont University in Pennsylvania, an institution that is both academically elite and a national basketball champion.
A budding genius intent on mastering neuroscience to better understand the “human beast,” she draws the eye of a trio of males: a towering basketball star who has second thoughts about being relegated to dumbed-down classes, the hot frat boy whose pickup line is telling girls they look like Britney Spears, and a student journalist who may win a Rhodes Scholarship but has so far been a spectator in the sexual revolution that consumes all those girls in low-slung jeans and all the boys in tight T-shirts showing mighty pecs, delts, traps and lats. Many loins are astir at Dupont U.
The evolving culture of campuses has been on Wolfe’s mind for a while. When he returned to Washington and Lee in 1980 to speak at a reunion, by then a celebrated pioneer of New Journalism, he commented on academia’s new phenomenon, the coed dorm -- a concept that, had you mentioned it a decade earlier, “people would have looked at you as if your eyeball was being eaten away by weevils.” He wondered why universities couldn’t still be repositories of moral values, “of what Orwell described as the most precious and most threatened quality on Earth: plain human decency.”
The issue became personal when Wolfe’s daughter, Alexandra, left for Duke University in 1998. On trips to visit her, he’d wander to nearby Chapel Hill to mix with students at the University of North Carolina. He traveled west to Stanford and mingled with “student entourages” there. He checked out night life at the University of Michigan, thus venturing, he later wrote, “where wise men never went.”
By the time Alexandra finished Duke, he was ready to share what he had found. At her 2002 commencement, he noted that the old “boy meets girl” plot line had been replaced. Now it was, “Our eyes met, our lips met, our bodies met, and then we were introduced” -- except sometimes that last formality never happened. It was “Gee, I wonder who that was?”
By then, Wolfe was making that ethos the focus of his next novel, having evolved from journalist to fiction writer with two epic-length bestsellers, 1987’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and 1998’s “A Man in Full.” When Norman Mailer and other of the literati accused him of churning out entertainment, not art, Wolfe argued back that his works signaled a return to a less self-indulgent genre that was a natural outgrowth of his earlier journalism, “the intensely realistic novel, based upon reporting, that plunges wholeheartedly into the social reality of America today, right now.”
As he was writing, Wolfe would run scenes and dialogue by his daughter, now 24, and his son, a student at Trinity College in Connecticut, to make sure he wasn’t sliding into ancient slang. He couldn’t have his Dupont U. kids saying “groovy.”
The Southern gentleman did spare his daughter the intimate questions he posed to other students. “He liked to think that I never dated anyone,” she says. “He still refers to my boyfriend as my ‘friend.’ ”
Wolfe grows uneasy when asked those sorts of questions himself. During an interview last week near his apartment off Central Park, he would not say, for instance, whether he had graduated college still “pure,” though he offered up that, like the boy in his old short story, he was not a “smooth operator.”
He was more comfortable explaining where the lingo in his book came from.
Dormcest? “I picked that up at Stanford,” Wolfe says of the phrase for fooling around with someone from your own dorm.
Sexile? “That’s all over the place,” he says of the term for being expelled by a roommate who needs a little privacy for a few hours, or all night.
Boy-scouters in the library? “That was Carolina,” he says of the coeds who sit in the reading room, facing the entrance.
Monet? “It seemed to be known about everywhere,” he says of the term for a girl who looks good at a distance, but close up ...
His old schoolmate Robbins jokes that “in the deep secret velvet of his heart,” Wolfe must have had some “lustful thoughts” while quizzing all those college girls whose show-it-off outfits he describes time and again. Wolfe says no -- he remained the dispassionate observer searching for “I can use that!” nuggets.
But Gay Talese, his old cohort in the New Journalism, once cautioned about the pitfalls of writing on the topic. Talese saw his own image take a turn when he spent 600 pages exploring the sex lives of Americans, and named names, in the nonfiction “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” “Sex is not a crime,” Talese noted afterward. “Describing it is.”
Of course, Talese also plunged into the dirty doings he described. Wolfe is not one to curse, much less get his white suit rumpled. But in “I Am Charlotte Simmons” he does not shy away from either the sounds boys make in the bathrooms or from the blood-on-the-sheets details of his heroine’s deflowering.
Wolfe tries to avoid seeming like a voyeur, or a scold, in presenting what he calls “a true picture of what’s out there.” What he sees is not erotic. The kids he studied were striving not for pleasure but status -- the status of being wanted, or of conquest, with everyone wondering, “How do I look now that I have, or have not, done this?”
Wolfe suggests what he thinks of all this, sneaking in a quote from Socrates about the ignorance of a man who “debauches himself, believing this will bring him happiness.” But he doesn’t want to rub our noses in the lesson, figuring we’ll come to our senses eventually. “We’re not in a runaway mineshaft car to hell,” he says.
An explorer in new worlds
A semiretired journalist and mother of two, Carol McCabe says she’s never stopped being a fan of Wolfe’s since sending that letter 53 years ago. But she’s curious as to how he’s pulled off this story of an innocent 18-year-old college girl’s education, so to speak. How he wrote about the kids today at his age.
Though Wolfe has compared himself to explorers like Cortez, reporting back from unknown territories, McCabe also wonders how unexplored this turf really is -- what new insights are left to share about the hordes of buff youngsters who seem to get so much exposure, in every sense, in our culture. McCabe was watching “The Bachelor” with “this guy choosing among ... plastic beautiful girls who ... demonstrated their love in all sorts of wonderful ways.” She thought, “It’s another world and they’re welcome to it.”
So he’s going to have to win her over again with his writing, as he did once with a story that had romance but no, as they say, hooking up.
They have written periodically, and she saw him once, when he spoke in Providence, R.I. But she chose not to approach him afterward. She had reached the age when people look through a woman, and she worried she was fat, no longer the girl in the trench coat he met in a train station.
“I’ll be glad if he remembers me that way,” she said, “forever and ever.”
Where: Dutton’s Brentwood Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 7 p.m. next Monday
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When: 7 p.m. Nov. 16
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695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 17
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