Sitting cross-legged on a couch in the library of his Upper East Side apartment, wearing the trademark white suite, navy tie and spotless two-tone spats, Tom Wolfe is about as far from a college keg party as one can be in the United States of America. He should know, since this 74-year-old chronicler of the zeitgeist spent the past four years listening to wasted 20-year-olds recite lines from Old School and spin their game at co-eds. The result of this anthropological masochism is I am Charlotte Simmons, a hulking, hilarious, exclamation point filled tale that is probably every suburban dad's worst nightmare. The novel follows college frosh Charlotte Simmons from her small hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains to the sex-obsessed campus of fictional DuPont University, where a college basketball player, a frat boy and a nerdy editor of the campus newspaper vie for her hand. Wolfe explained why young co-eds fascinated him so.
You've written about astronauts (The Right Stuff), the '60s (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and Wall Street in the '80s (Bonfire of the Vanities). What drew you to college life?
The intersection of sex and status was what fascinated me about it. Even though we think we are being carried away by emotion, so much of sex is socially determined.
Give me an example.
Back when I was a student at Washington and Lee in 1950, I took a class in which the professor had us go through this routine. He said, "OK, let's see if sexual behavior is socially determined. It's spring, the yews are in heat this time of year. And the genital apparatus of a female sheep is very, very similar to that of a woman. Would you be willing, if I brought in a sheep, to, in front of the class, have intercourse with it?"
Um, gross. How did people react?
Of course, everyone said no. And he said, “OK, you already proved to yourself two things. One, you do not find it acceptable to engage in bestiality, and you do not find it acceptable to have intercourse in front of your peers.”
Aside from the fact that students still don't have sex with sheep, has life changed that much since you were in college?
The big change is, in my opinion, the change in sexual mores. The other is the breakdown of formality—there used to be a formal barrier between teachers and students. That is now largely gone. Now some things haven't changed at all, like levels of intoxication. That's always been severe.
You once told an interviewer you continued wearing the white suit because it annoyed people. Is that true? And what did the students make of it?
It wasn't so much to annoy people as it made me a man from Mars who didn't know anything and wanted to know. You can actually get a lot out of people by pretending to be naïve. Incidentally, all during these trips I didn't wear the suit. I'd wear navy blazers, white flannels, shoes like this. (He gestures at his spats.) They had no idea who I was, I'd be at these fraternity parties until four or five in the morning ... they'd tend to look at me and think, well, he's too old to be Drug Enforcement Administration. So they figured I was harmless.
And all the while you were furiously cribbing notes.
Actually I didn't take notes. I just listened.
And you could understand them?
At first, no, but I caught on. What I call fuck patois (using fuck as noun, verb and adjective) was so universal that when I started using the language in the novel I had to stop and do a mini essay to show that I'm aware of how people are using this word. Otherwise I might have been accused of trying to artificially spice up my book with naughty words, which wasn't the case. It's how they talk.
Isn't there some kind of posturing in the use of language, that, well, 30 years ago, was sort of criminal?
I think every man alive is aware that—even though we live in a time when the crucial decisions that affect our ability are made by people in dark wool suits in air conditioned, glass offices—that primal questioning "Am I a man, am I as big a man as the next guy?" never leaves a male's consciousness. So in this novel I was very deliberately showing how intellectual superiority, a person like Adam Gellen, the kid on the newspaper, loses meaning.
You are our pre-eminent social novelist. Some people would say, September 11 changed everything, everyone's talking about the second Bush term, everyone's talking about terrorism, and you're writing about life on a college campus. Are you off track?
First of all, I started this before September 11. But I did pause and say, you know, wait a minute. This is supposedly changing everything. But things pretty much returned to normal. I mean, real estate prices are through the roof, which is a sign of absolute confidence that New York is safe. But also, I found on campuses the reaction to 9-11 was zero.
Yes, unless they were from New York, it was just something that happened on TV.
A Man in Full, your second novel, earned you a National Book Award nomination, but the scorn of John Updike, who called it entertainment, not literature. What do you say to that?
I'm trying to write a writer's equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. The first line of the doctor's oath is "First, do no harm." And I think for the writers it would be "First, entertain." Entertain is a very simple word. I looked it up in the dictionary. Entertainment enables people to pass the time pleasantly. Tolstoy understood this; Dostoyevsky understood this. It's very recent that there's a premium put on making writing so difficult that (only) a charming aristocracy is capable of understanding it.