I often use my local branch of the Montgomery County Public Library, and not just for borrowing books. For one thing, they were kind enough to stock my excellent, but ill-selling book, Shaggy Dogs: A Collection of Not-So-Short Stories. For another, they have a bank of computers people can use when they need one, but do not have one.
I found myself temporarily in that fix recently. In fact, I cranked out my recent article, The Best Albums for Road Trips, there (which, owing to time-limit constraints, would explain the proliferation of typos). Also, I made my contribution to the illustrious Abby Greenhill’s Tell Me a Story – Volume 11 on the library’s device.
Another benefit the library features is its used book sale section. I find it useful, both coming and going. That is to say, it is a nice way to dispose of those books I do not plan to read again (which does not necessarily make them bad books). Also, there is, every once in a while, a chance to pick up somebody else’s donated books for a song. Paperbacks are 25¢ and hardbacks, double that.
Of course, that is still more than the price of a borrowed book (zero, if you get it back on time), but, then you have the leisure of picking it up whenever you good-and-well get ready to, not necessarily within the next two or three weeks.
A few weeks ago, I had occasion to browse the book sale section, where, to be perfectly frank, I often find nothing I want, even for a quarter. This time, though, I was able to spot two potentially-interesting items: a paperback of Flannery O’Connor’s last stories and the aforementioned Tom Wolfe novel. I have to say, it was the wisest investment I have made of 75¢ in quite a while.
I am still reading the O’Connor stories as commuting literature, but I took in I Am Charlotte Simmons in one fell swoop.
Let me end what little suspense there may be: I like the book. It met with mixed reviews, mostly unfavorable, when it came out, but I disagree with the critics who panned it. In any case, it was popular enough that a number of people have been exploring its potential as a movie or TV series.
Not only do I consider this to be an excellently-written novel, I applaud Wolfe for the “degree of difficulty” he took on in writing it. Though the story is written in the third person, it is largely from the standpoint of an eighteen-year-old girl from Appalachia, while the author is an old man (nearly 80) from New York city.
Charlotte Simmons, the central character, is a very bright scholarship student from a family that is just struggling by. To give you an example, the only table they have to eat from is a worn-out picnic table.
Because of her excellent high-school record, she wins a scholarship to the prestigious Dupont University in Chester, Pennsylvania. The town of Chester really does exist (It’s just outside of Philadelphia.), but the university is fictional. Wolfe is supposed to have visited a number of campuses to draw a composite picture of Dupont, but, out of the bunch, his fictional school seems to most resemble Duke. It is, at the same time, a party school, a well-respected academic school and a jock school. All three of those aspects come very much into play in the telling of this story.
In the book’s prologue (which you must read to fully understand the most important part of the plot to follow), some of the guys in the “Saint Ray” fraternity (Is this something new? I thought all fraternities and sororities were named after Greek letters.) are joking about a slutty girl who imagined herself to be “re-virginated.”
Of course they (and, presumably the girl) were referring to sexual virginity, but, in a much larger sense, this story is about Charlotte’s spiritual re-virginization. All through high school and probably before that, Charlotte had steered her own course toward truth and knowledge, seemingly oblivious to her lack of popularity, even though she is, from the author’s description, a pretty girl.
When she exchanges the relatively tame life of her community, under the protection of her family, for the far more fast-paced life at the university, her values undergo a profound shock. And, like Mohammed Ali in the “Thrilla in Manilla” against long-time foe Joe Frazier, her values take a severe beating in the middle rounds, but, in the end, they come back, stronger than ever. The studious child was not as inner-directed as she appeared to be, as her unpopularity hurt her more than she would ever show. The Charlotte at the end of the novel could not care less about popularity, which, paradoxically, she suddenly has in abundance.
Throughout the story, a number of young men show a keen interest in Charlotte, of whom three figure most prominently in the story. Now, here’s the thing: they are all horribly flawed, though not without their strong points. Some critics have taken Wolfe to task for “wasting time” telling us these fellows’ back stories, but I thought it was all stuff the reader deserved to know and it was all well-told at that.
I must say, I was surprised at which one of the three won her affections, but, then, after reading on a bit, it all made perfect sense.
Of course, this is not just a book about Charlotte Simmons and her three suitors. It features a number of colorful, well-portrayed characters-students as well as adults-who round the novel out and make it a joy to read. Also interspersed into the narration are Wolfe’s many amusing and cogent observations on the state of our language today.
Maybe you should look for I Am Charlotte Simmons at your own library.
I Am Charlotte Simons, Tom Wolfe
New York Magazine