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Tom Wolfe - Not Getting Out Much?

Tom Wolfe has paid his dues, and has had a significant impact
on the culture - we had no idea he created the phrase "good ol'
boy," but our guess is that if the good ol' boys we knew realized
that a foppish New York writer created the phrase of which they have become so
proud, well, they'd have issues, as we say these days (no thanks to Wolfe as far
as we know). And we'll certainly admit to not having read his latest book,
"I Am Charlotte Simmons," set at fictional DuPont University, which may or may not
be based on Duke. But as well as we know Duke, we note that his heroine,
Charlotte, is from Sparta, North Carolina, a place we know nearly as well.
Based on this excerpt, not only has he not been there, but like a lot of people,
he has very little idea of how people in the mountains actually live,
or that
they are not simply bumpkins with pickup trucks, but sophisticated, interesting
people who are worthy of better literary treatment than what we see in the
excerpt. Consider the following excerpts from the excerpt:

  • Dear Momma and Daddy...I'll admit my eyes blurred with mist when I saw you drive off in the old pickup...The old pickup? . . . my eyes blurred with mist? . . . She sighed, she groaned, deflated. What on earth did she think she was writing? She lifted her ballpoint from the top sheet of a pad of lined schoolroom paper and slumped back, or as far back as you could slump in an exhausted wooden chair with no arms. She looked out the window at the library tower. It was lit up ever so majestically in the dark. She saw it, and she didn't see it. Beverly's cast-off clothes mashed on the floor, Beverly's web of extension cords plugged into knuckle sockets in midair, her rat's nest of a percale-sloshed unmade bed, her littered CD cases, uncapped skin-care tubes, and spilled contact lenses, her techie alphabet toys, the PC, the TV, the CD, DVD, DSL, VCR, IM, MP-4, all of them currently dormant in the absence of their owner, each asleep rattlesnake-like with a single tiny diode-green eye open -- her roommate's slothful and indulgent habits were all over the place . . . Charlotte was sort of aware of it and sort of wasn't really. She rocked forward with another trill of low-grade guilt to confront her manuscript . . . the old pickup. Daddy is totally dependent on that poor, miserable old truck, and I'm treating it like it's something quaint.
  • I have a feeling that it is harder to get into a university like this than it is to stay in it. I suppose I shouldn't even think like that, however'' -- she starts to write lest I have a rude awakening, -- and what is lest supposed to mean in Alleghany County? -- then downscales it to ''because it might be bad luck."
  • But she stiffened and swallowed it all. Just one little mention of . . . sex . . . and Momma the Wrath of God would head east in the pickup, and haul her back to Sparta, and the whole county would hum like a hive: ''Charlotte Simmons has dropped out of Dupont. Poor thing thinks it's immoral there.''
  • Beverly doesn't just return in the dead of the night and ''go to bed really late''! She brings boys into bed -- and they rut-rut-rut do it -- barely four feet from my bed! She leads a wanton sex life! The whole place does! Girls sexile each other! Rich girls with fifteen hundred SAT's cry out, ''I need some [sexual activity]!'' ''I'm gonna go out and get [it]!'' The girls, Momma, the girls, Dupont girls, right in front of you! Momma -- what am I to do . .
  • ''So everything is going along pretty much the way I hoped it would. I have to pinch myself to make sure this isn't just a dream and I really am a student at one of the best universities in the country.'' Thinks: where one and all make Channing and Regina look like harmless four-year-olds. ''Dupont isn't Sparta, but I've already come to believe that growing up in Sparta has advantages that people I've met from places like Boston and New York have never had.''
  • ''I didn't mean to make this letter so long. I should have written you before now to bring you up to date. Give my love to Buddy and Sam; also to Aunt Betty and Cousin Doogie. Tell them I miss them and that everything is going fine.
  • This will come as a shock to a man who wears white suits every day of his
    life, but people who are utterly dependent upon things learn how to fix them.
    And their children usually understand this as well. Aside from
    being patronizing, it's just dumb writing. Wolfe is far too smart for
  • It helps to get west of Manhattan occasionally. People in Alleghany County
    not only know what lest means, they actually use it in conversation from time to time.
  • Again, this notion of the sturdy, simple mountain folk who are uncorrupted
    by the modern world...what a bunch of hooey. Where do you think
    country songs come from? Where did Patsy Cline learn her wild ways?
    People in the mountains have been doing astonishing things for hundreds of
    years. Sex is as vital a part of life there as anywhere else, and
    pursued just as avidly. We're not saying it's Sparta & Gomorrah or
    anything, but come on. People are people, and furthermore, if you live
    in a place which is (ostensibly) boring, sex certainly moves up the list of
  • Okay, this is not a regional thing, but 18, 19-year-old boys with 1,500
    SATS yelling out they need to get laid? This is shocking to
    Wolfe? Bill Gates and Paul Allen yelled this out until their
  • This crack - "growing up in Sparta" - is sort of what someone
    says to ennoble the peasantry without actually spending time around
  • Buddy, Sam, Betty and Doogie? Oh, good God. You can find
    regional names which are truly wretched. But sticking them on
    relatives in a letter just - well, to us it's just lazy.

Look, having spent a fair amount of time in the mountains, we can say that
you can find, if you are looking for them, the most depraved sort of
people. But for the most part, what you find are normal, everyday people
who live in an lovely and challenging place, and whose culture deserves more
respect than what you see here. We're certainly open to the possibility that
Wolfe will be more observant and less lazy in the course of this novel, but
based on this, we're not optimistic. You know, just as a test in case you
read the book - one thing he might touch on if he has actually spent time in
Sparta is the significant influx of Hispanics. Our guess is that a bright
young girl like Charlotte might have picked up a living language, rather than
classroom French, maybe even a Hispanic boyfriend or a girlfriend she confides
in. Maybe she's particularly knowledgeable about parts of Mexico.
Then again, what do we know? Maybe she feels threatened by the
newcomers. Who knows?

And that's kind of the point. You hope that Wolfe isn't pursuing an idea at
the expense of a compelling character, but that's kind of what it sounds
like. The guy we think of here, to an extent anyway, is Larry Bird.
He was overwhelmed at Indiana and went home in a big hurry, but as time has
shown us, the man is anything but simple. That's true for a lot of people
who live in the country. Someday this news may make it Back East.
But don't hold your breath.