The press is confused today over the fact that President Bush likes I Am Charlotte Simmons and is recommending it to his friends. All this can mean is that the reporters haven’t read the book or they are blind as to its meaning. Having just finished it, I can take a good guess as to why the President likes it: Tom Wolfe absolutely skewers the liberal elite higher education establishment. From crackpot professors to sex obsessed drunken fraternity boys to so-called student athletes and radically leftist student newspapers, Wolfe shows no mercy in describing typical college life. (He did his research at schools such as Stanford, Duke and Michigan and while he may not have captured an average university in its fullness, no one has seriously argued with the fact that Wolfe did a pretty good job of portraying at least a large sub-culture within most schools) I assume the president likes it because the politics of the university is shown to be a joke.
I liked it, too, but not for that reason. In lampooning college life, Wolfe did a wonderful job of describing:: 1) the futility of an atheistic, naturalistic worldview and 2) the ridiculousness of sin. I think he was aiming to accomplish the first and whether or not he was trying for the second, he hit the mark anyway. Wolfe is a moralist and Charlotte Simmons is a call back to things like modesty and respect, but I doubt he would use the term sin. Be that as it may, he described sin and its consequences beautifully. People who live as if there is no God, as most of the characters in the novel did, live empty, meaningless and sometimes very mean, lives. To read the novel without seeing that is to miss the most important part. Perhaps that is why so many reviewers have hated it; they live the same empty, ridiculous lives of the characters and did not want ot admit it.
I wouldn’t say this was the best book I ever read, or even the best Tom Wolfe book I ever read, but he made some great points. I would warn any potential readers, though, that in an effort to show college life in all its stupidity and darkness, Wolfe went for realism. The language and some descriptions of events are crass and vulgar. If you don’t want to read swear words or sex scenes, don’t bother with this book.
UPDATE: Today’s Wall Street Journal offered some good thoughts about why the President might like the book. According to J. Wright,
One reaction is to raise an eyebrow that this supposed Puritan of a
President should indulge such titillating fiction: Mr. Wolfe’s book,
which deals with the assorted undergraduate debaucheries of fictional
Dupont University, contains a chapter-long sex scene. Or perhaps the
President, whose twin daughters are real-life contemporaries of
Charlotte Simmons, read the book out of fatherly concern. Or maybe Mr.
Bush, a "Deke" man at Yale, just wanted to relive his Animal House
Our reaction is a little different. For starters, it’s hard to
credit the idea that Mr. Bush is a cretin when Mr. Wolfe is a favorite
author. On the contrary, both men have succeeded largely because they
are in touch with the kinds of cultural currents the liberal
establishment rarely notices (or considers beneath notice). Mr. Wolfe
himself noted just before the election that "I would vote for Bush if
for no other reason than to be at the airport waving off all the people
who say they are going to London if he wins again."
It also strikes us that the President, who in his State of the
Union address spoke of the "long journey" his Boomer generation had
taken to "come home to family and faith," saw "Charlotte Simmons" as a
morality play. A morality play about what? Well, if Mr. Wolfe’s
"Bonfire of the Vanities" was a call for the revival of WASP values and
"A Man In Full" was a call for the revival of Roman stoicism,
"Charlotte Simmons" would seem to be a call for a revival of Victorian
modesty and seriousness of purpose.
It’s always possible we’re reading too much into this, but in any event, as lists go, Mr. Bush could do a lot worse.