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Bonfire of the Varsities

The light! Yellow. Bright. Streaming through the trees that tower up to but not above the gargoyles of the great Gothic campus. It had required three SAT tutors, two AP tutors, and one math tutor, but I had been accepted. I was a Duke Man, surrounded by other Duke men and women. They were hungover too, emerging from the residence halls, sticky with the shared oils of Friday night, puttering into Alpine Bagels to drink off beer with orange juice. Oh, the pain. I vaguely remembered coming to Duke for academics. Three hundred pages behind in The Poetry of Lord Byron. I was only doing well in Introduction to Jazz—and everyone did well in Intro to Jazz.

The students milled about the entrance to Alpine Bagels. Among them, standing beside his daughter, was a silver-haired gentleman in an immaculate gray suit. Tom Wolfe. I slowed to have a look, and his daughter introduced us. In 1989, Wolfe wrote a literary manifesto, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in which he exhorted American novelists to go West, East, North, South—anywhere they pleased, so long as they placed the realities of American life at the core of their work. On a hung-over morning during my sophomore year, I was two of the Beast’s Billion Feet that Tom Wolfe had been stalking. I noticed his eyes: gathering, sorting, scanning, and finally reaching a conclusion as he read the lettering across my T-shirt. KAPPA SIGMA. In an act of hubris, we had printed 200 during the last spring’s big party, and we wore them like midshipmen with new tattoos.

“Kappa Sigma. I’ve heard that they are one of the best …”

The best! Just last night I had lured a senior into my bunk. A sophomore and a senior! Triumph! Lauren … somebody. Of course, it would be uncool to be excited about being so cool. Best to be self-effacing, but witty.

“For whatever that’s worth. I think it was started by a bunch of very angry Southerners after the Civil War …”

He said something about necromancing and his alma mater, Washington & Lee. We parted ways. I went inside, and Wolfe continued his walk out on Duke’s campus and so many others.

It was quite a walk.

In I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe gives us a tabula rasa from the Blue Ridge mountains who attends prestigious Dupont University only to find herself caught in the prevailing cultural, moral, and human maelstrom of American college life at the turn of the century. We all walked past buildings at Duke, but Wolfe seems to have seen through them.

Each of the primary characters in this book represents a leading strain of youth, full of ambition and flaws. Adam Gellin is a scholarship student who has reduced all of life to SAT logic. Dupont: Rhodes Scholarship: Policy-Making Appointment: Personal Fulfillment: Happiness. There are co-signatories to this theory—the Millennial Mutants. With the Mutants, Wolfe pokes about at the self-defeating ambition of the late-stage meritocrats who occupy the bottom rungs of collegiate social ladders, believing that one day accounts will be righted and with wry commentary, solid credentials, and flawless transcripts, they will rise to the top. The life of the mind exists chiefly as conduit to a life of prestige and power.

One of these fellows used to edit me at the Duke Chronicle. He and his friends would bicker for hours to determine who would write the next day’s editorial, which is strange because the editorials never really said anything. Wolfe captures the style of these would-be polemics, always striving for outrage but never really attaining it. He also nails the rivalry between this group and the fratters, who had what they wanted. My editor loved Pub Quiz trivia. He would scribble away the correct answers to question after question, then leer across the room at the frat boys. They might beat him for women, they might throw big parties, but he had the answers. Who among them knew that Millard Fillmore was the 13th president? At the end of the night, he would claim his free bar tab and all the respect that came with it. This fellow graduates from a top-ten law school this spring. Watch out world.

In Hoyt Thorpe and the young elitists of Saint Rays fraternity, Wolfe uncovers the gremlins of a culture hopelessly obsessed with wealth and status; these are the warped grandchildren of the old guard, the most privileged men of the Republic. But in 2004, something has gone wrong. Nobility no longer obliges; it entitles. Yet entitlement is addictive, and so it also enslaves. Wolfe offers an updated understanding of fraternities as social lockboxes far removed from their bawdy Animal House progenitors. To belong is to share in patterns of speech, behavior, pleasure, and thought, and in return receive not only present identity but a future vision of oneself as heir to a vaguely defined prosperity. Thorpe is the poster boy for the young man willing to do anything to take his place in the bourgeois pantheon, preferably along the path of least resistance.

If the book succeeds in describing the new, virulent strain of frat boy, it is weakest in depicting its protagonist’s interactions with the men of Saint Rays. The cultural separating mechanisms of most universities are incredibly efficient, and if Ms. Simmons is half as green as Wolfe would have us believe, she would have been kept away from the frat scene altogether. Christian groups, reading groups, volunteer groups—lots of things to do. Moreover, were Hoyt Thorpe nearly as shallow as Wolfe correctly makes him out to be, it is hard to imagine him risking reputation and clout on such a backwater bride. But there is a larger point, and the payoff in cultural commentary more than compensates for any implausibility. The deflowering and dehumanizing end met by North Carolina’s proudest daughter at the hands of Greenwich, Connecticut’s most vulgar son vividly animates one of the great themes of this book—the corrupting role of corrupted language.

In prime form, Wolfe has sifted through the conversation of a generation, dusting off every verb, examining each noun, and reeling at the role of sarcasm and irony in casual discourse. Plato would write on this if he were alive, but the founder of New Journalism is the best we have and not entirely unqualified. Irony everywhere, thick and heavy. Stirred in with sarcasm then dripped upon every remark to the point that sincerity itself becomes ironic. That is when all is lost: morality and meaning become relative. Charlotte embodies these things, and along with them is doomed. Wolfe pulls no punches here. He lets us know where we stand in one of the most disturbing, chilling, mechanical, and dead-on-accurate descriptions of drunken collegiate coitus on record.

There are some hollow points. Jojo Johanssen is rather stupid for a character fated to experience an intellectual epiphany centering around a philosophy of justice. Yet if anyone has written a more compelling description of the pressures exerted on athletes by corporatized universities, I would very much like to read it. Wolfe is everywhere—the locker room, the coaches’ office, the air-conditioned player suites. I often sat in the bleachers at basketball games and wondered what was going through the minds of Duke’s basketball gods. You would see them driving about in $60,000 cars, lunching with sunglassed men months before the NBA draft, saying hello to your girlfriend and calling her “baby.” I often noticed Tom Wolfe sitting courtside at these games, and his account of the action on Dupont’s court is every bit as gripping as A Man In Full’s meat-freezer brawl. White flesh, black pecs, muscle armor, sweat-soaked, trash-talking, kidney-poking, hard-fouling. The pimped-out, blinged-up booster Escalades. The ghostwritten term papers. The magnificent hubris, all set to a hip-hop beat. (It is only with his treatment of hip hop, a venture to the outer edges of pop culture, that Wolfe seems to be showing his age. He has an enduring fascination with rap music, but never gets it right. His fictional rap impresario has a penchant for ending each of his rhymes with the strangely mid-’80s sign-off “Know’m saying?” This fellow might have been rapping in Brooklyn during the Bonfire era but would never get signed to a label today.) Other would-be cultural tags also fall flat: Diesel Jeans, Britney Spears, Manolo Blahniks. But the world has Candace Bushnell for these things.

Tom Wolfe isn’t after jeans, pop stars, or $600 shoes. He is, after all, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast. It moves! It groans! It matters. With Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe cornered it on Park Avenue. There, in a classic eight-bedroom, Sherman McCoy traded his bonds and cheated on his wife. Day in, day out he shaved little bits of gold from big chunks of gold and spent those nuggets fueling a life so full of nonsense that it had to come crashing down before he had any chance of finding himself. In A Man in Full, Wolfe introduced America to the Big Southern Real Estate Developer Charlie Croker, who basked in machismo derived chiefly from office towers and quail hunting, while his lowest employee discovered just what it means to be human. Charlotte Simmons is less overt but no less important.

The nation’s leading universities look nothing like they did even 40 years ago. Streaming media flows in through cables, wires, and the air itself. Meritocratic admissions policies clash with human vanities and the old aristocracy. Recruiters comb campuses to cull elites of all definitions well before those elites have ever gotten around to defining themselves. Students attempt character development amid constant opportunities to quench their most base desires. Even on campuses dominated by cathedrals, no one will go on record to tell you that you have a soul. It is the immaculate, intricate, devastating treatment of this fractured-mirror world and its warping influence that makes this book so worthwhile. Tom Wolfe has done it again. He has tracked the Billion-Footed Beast from Penn to Stanford to Harvard to Yale to Princeton to Duke and finally to Dupont University, where he caught and caged the damn thing—bucking, breathing, vile, gorgeous —on display for all to see.


Dana B. Vachon writes from New York City.

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