I Am Charlotte Simmons – Tom Wolfe
Seventy-three-year-old Tom Wolfe goes back to college. His fictional alma mater is prestigious Dupont, which ranks up there with Yale (which Wolfe attended in 1957). Things have changed drastically since he was a student, so Wolfe begins this novel with thanks to the many young insiders who helped him gather information about present-day conditions on campus. Though I wonder how reliable his sources were, they can’t take the blame for this smarmy novel: all blame falls on Wolfe’s shoulders. His trademark white suit, it turns out, hides a bad case of dandruff (probably the only kind of bodily discharge he doesn’t describe in detail). Charlotte Simmons’ first visit to her dorm’s coed bathroom is a grueling example of male vulgarity at its scatological worst. But are males, even college students, that bad? Are the women as sluttish as Wolfe portrays them to be? Do students speak in what is described as Fuck Patois, in which that word is used as every form of speech? Has sex at the collegiate level become an act indulged in randomly and indiscriminately? (“Sex! Sex! It was in the air along with the nitrogen and the oxygen! The whole campus was humid with it! tumid with it! lubricated with it! gorged with it! tingling with it! in a state of around-the-clock arousal with it! Rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut – ”) A claim might be put forth that Wolfe is making a moral statement about the immorality on today’s campuses; but, if so, his depiction of life at Dupont would have to bear the stamp of authenticity. And authenticity is what this over-heated novel lacks. What we’re getting is an old man’s fantasy (which would account for the many lingering descriptions of “ripped” male anatomy). The prose is hammered out in a makeshift fashion, and the characters are stereotypes or gross exaggerations. Even the virginal Charlotte Simmons, dumped in the middle of this Sodom and Gomorrah, isn’t developed to the point where she garners sympathy; she serves a merely functional role, as a colorless counterpoint to the rest of the students. My rule is that I must read at least half of a book to review it. I quit a third of the way through this novel, but its so mammoth that I’m making an exception. As for why I got that far, I simply fell victim to the fascination that the repellent offers. And, to give Wolfe a crumb of praise, he still writes with a demented vigor.
The Far Country – Nevil Shute
This novel contains elements basic to a successful love story. First and foremost, the characters must be real, for why else would we care about them? Shute’s portrayal of Jennifer Morton is especially strong; she’s multi-dimensional and appealing. When she’s on a trip to Australia she meets Carl Zlinter, and it’s under dire circumstances. An accident had occurred at a mining camp, and she helps him perform two operations, one the severing of a leg, the other cranial surgery. Jennifer is no nurse; she’s pressed into duty because she’s the only person in the vicinity with clean hands. Carl is a lumberman, but in his native Czechoslovakia he had been a doctor; after WWII he migrated to Australia and had to serve two years as a laborer. The men in the camp call him Splinter, and turn to him for medical care (which, by law, he isn’t allowed to do). So Jennifer and Carl are thrown together, working for twelve hours in an intense situation; an intimacy arises. In the following months their feelings for one another deepen; Shute gives us reasons why they fall in love. And they deserve one another’s love: they’re good people with similar values. Beyond some kisses there are no sex scenes, but it’s clear that they’re made of flesh and blood. We’re left believing that these two will make a good life together. This isn’t a great novel, but it’s a satisfying one. Since there are no major complications, it can be said that Shute approaches the subject of love in simple terms. There are other ways to do it. But many attempts fail because the characters aren’t real and reasons for the depth of feeling which merits the word love are never convincingly developed.
Fortune Is a Woman – Winston Graham
I enjoyed a previous work by Graham, so, despite its silly title, I took a chance on this one. It starts out promisingly, but gradually the promise dissipates. The falling off in potential occurs because Graham wants this to be a mystery/suspense novel, along with a love story, and halfway through he begins to manipulate characters and situations to make the book serve those purposes. Things get very complicated, but I didn’t try to follow the twists and turns because the whole endeavor had become an empty fabrication. The love story was flat, the mystery was based on unlikely convolutions, the action scenes were clumsy. In that previous novel by Graham – The Walking Stick – its main character was authentic – painfully so. If, in Fortune, he had focused on Oliver Branwell’s obsession, this wouldn’t have been a love story, nor would it have been a mystery. It would have been a psychological study. But that’s a complex undertaking. Instead an author can take the easy route – and still be commercially successful – by writing something second-rate like Fortune Is a Woman.