"I Am Charlotte Simmons" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 676 pages, $28.95),Tom Wolfe's third novel, is a gauntlet taken up. It may seem that Mr. Wolfe, firmly established as one of the 20th century's most influential journalists, and already the author of two megabest-selling novels, has nothing left to prove. But Mr. Wolfe's ambition as a fiction writer has always been pugilistic - he approaches both his subjects and his critics in a fighting crouch - and even the commercial success of "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man in Full" did not bend all critics to his will. In particular, many of them pointed out that, for all the teeming populousness of Mr. Wolfe's two earlier novels - filled as they are with hustlers and plutocrats, convicts and adulterers, Masters of the Universe and stoic proles - the one form of life distinctly missing was a convincing female character. Norman Mailer, in his review of "A Man in Full" in the New York Review of Books, declared that Mr. Wolfe "appears incapable of creating a vital and interesting woman."
It seems possible that this judgment, handed down from on high by one of the writers Mr. Wolfe went on to mock as "My Three Stooges," was the seed of "Charlotte Simmons." The new novel is familiarly Wolfean in many ways - from its garrulous bulk and bravura set-pieces, down to its stylistic tics (like the use of repetitive italics - italics! - to indicate excitement or incredulity) and its obsession with dividing all characters into the fat and the muscular (and with cataloguing every species of muscle - traps, delts, quads, pecs, and so on). But now, for the first time, Mr. Wolfe's main character is a woman - and not just a woman, but an 18-year-old college freshman. You say I am just a reporter, the book as much as cries out - you say I can't create a "vital and interesting woman"? Well, Mr. Wolfe declares, I'm not just creating one - "I Am Charlotte Simmons."
In fact, the title phrase is the mantra of self-assurance that Charlotte carries with her from poor, rural Sparta, N.C., to majestic Dupont University, a fictional Pennsylvania college along the lines of Stanford or Duke. Charlotte needs all the assurance she can get, for she arrives at Dupont as sheltered, provincial, and naive as they come - indeed, far more than they credibly come in the year 2004 - only to find that college life is a veritable Sodom. Since the 1960s, Mr. Wolfe has taken a prurient interest in the sex lives of students - the title essay of his most recent collection, "Hooking Up," was a survey of the sexual practices of the young, among whom "stains and stigmas of every kind were disappearing."
Now, in "Charlotte Simmons," he plunges his virginal Candide into a roiling sea of hook-ups and date rape, oral sex and dirty dancing. On the way from innocence through pollution to redemption, Charlotte must negotiate her way among Hoyt, a predatory frat boy, Adam, a needy intellectual, and Jojo, a basketball star - not to mention a host of gossiping, jealous girls. This being a Tom Wolfe novel, there are also half a dozen other plot threads, but these are pursued with much less than his customary vigor. "I Am Charlotte Simmons" is Charlotte's book, and it stands and falls with her credibility as a fictional creation. Reading it, one never forgets that Mr. Wolfe's dearly longed-for reputation as a serious novelist capable of creating a genuinely independent character is on the line.
It is no accident that Mr. Wolfe's fiction is spiced and encumbered by this meta-narrative, this psychodrama of authorial ambition. Ever since he coined the term "The New Journalism" in the early 1970s, Mr. Wolfe has been telling the world how he is to be read. The key text, when it comes to his fiction, is his celebrated 1989 essay "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast." The essay has two aims in view: first, to explain and defend the kind of novel Mr. Wolfe wrote in "Bonfire of the Vanities"; second, to make clear that Mr. Wolfe has always been a true novelist at heart. He thought of writing a big New York novel, he says, as early as 1968, and over the next 20 years he kept looking over his shoulder anxiously lest some rival snatch away his great subject. But it never happened, he claims, because American fiction writers have become etiolated, self-absorbed, and snobbishly experimental - all the vices Mr. Wolfe had already identified in the visual arts. The message was unmistakable: The dragon of the Big Novel was at large, but none of Mr. Wolfe's fellow-writers had the guts to go out and slay it. Only Mr. Wolfe was ambitious enough, worldly enough - man enough - to get the job done.
In this way, Mr. Wolfe connects his own ambition as a novelist with the theme that has animated all his writing, fiction and non-fiction, from the very beginning. Reading his splendid journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, one soon discovers that each and every one of his subjects leads Mr. Wolfe back to the question of manliness and the nature of the Real Man. Junior Johnson, the bootlegger and stock-car driver of "The Last American Hero," is a Real Man; so are the bomber pilots who duel with the Vietcong in "Jousting with Sam and Charlie"; so are the astronauts of "The Right Stuff."
What unites them is a conception of manhood Mr. Wolfe takes from Hemingway and Conrad, though without their sense of tragic irony. In this vision, manhood is not really an ethic but a substitute for ethics - it is what remains when final purposes and moral principles are no longer available. All that counts in a meaningless universe is the Real Man's provisional, pragmatic ethics - self-reliance, stoicism, the nihilistic courage of "ours not to reason why, / ours but to do and die." Manliness has been both the subject and the context of Mr. Wolfe's career as a novelist.
"Bonfire of the Vanities" is best described as a tournament of manliness, and could be diagrammed with one of those branching charts used for the NCAA basketball playoffs. Sherman McCoy is more of a man than the South Bronx muggers he successfully fights off ("We were in the goddamned jungle ... and we were attacked ... and we fought our way out"). But he loses to Lawrence Kramer, the district attorney who brings him down; Kramer is defeated in turn by Reverend Bacon, the rabble-rousing black leader who forces the DA to pursue McCoy.
But the overpowering seductiveness of this theme for Mr. Wolfe creates a paradox in his fiction. Despite his much-vaunted voracity for the details of life in "this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours," Mr. Wolfe's real fictional subject is extremely narrow, and finally monotonous. He may go everywhere, but he always sees the same thing - men butting heads like angry elk.
In "Charlotte Simmons," manliness forces its way to center stage whenever Mr. Wolfe's plot gives it a chance. The sections of the novel dealing with Dupont's basketball team, ferocious in combat and riven by racial tension, allow Mr. Wolfe to return to familiar ground; his player's eye description of a basketball game is one of the book's best set pieces. As always, men too scared or weak to fight earn Mr. Wolfe's wholehearted contempt. "Where is the poet who has sung of that most lacerating of all human emotions," he writes, "the cut that never heals - male humiliation?"
It is one of the unlovely features of this book, and of Mr. Wolfe's writing in general, that the men most likely to be humiliated in his fiction are Jewish. This seems to have less to do with outright anti-Semitism than with Mr. Wolfe's typical recourse to stereotypes of all kinds: just as his black characters are generally brutal and violent, and his women are generally manipulative sexpots, so his Jewish characters are usually weak, ambitious, resentful, and hypersensitive. That certainly describes the two most repellent characters in "Charlotte Simmons," the football-hating Professor Quat and Charlotte's suitor Adam Gellin. In both cases, Mr. Wolfe leaves no doubt of the relationship between their Jewishness and their moral flaws (and even their physical ones - Adam is a skinny weakling, Quat is fat and womanish). Indeed, he goes out of his way to tell us that both of them harbor an unbecoming admiration of Israel and a suspicious hostility to Christians.
All of this is bad enough. But what really sinks "Charlotte Simmons," and makes it without a doubt Mr. Wolfe's worst novel, is the gaping failure of sociological realism at its core. Charlotte is a mess of cultural and class markers. Is there an 18-year-old in America, even from a poor, pious home in the Alleghenies, who is thoroughly familiar with Michel Houellebecq but only dimly aware of Homer Simpson? Who takes molecular biology as a high school student but has to get to college to hear the term "cutting-edge"? The two big simplicities that go to make up Charlotte's character - her brilliance and her innocence - are constantly tugging in opposite directions, and finally they pull her apart.
The same tone-deafness extends to Mr. Wolfe's whole portrait of life at Dupont. I have never been a Wall Street banker or an Atlanta real-estate developer, so I must take the accuracy of Mr. Wolfe's earlier novels on trust. But I have been a college student, in a time not unimaginably remote from that in which "Charlotte Simmons" takes place, and I can say with assurance that nothing about Dupont rings true - not its academic life, not its social life, not its sexual life. It seems clear that, in this case, the barriers of age, gender, and ideology were too high to be surmounted even by Mr. Wolfe's reportorial zealousness. The result is not even a caricature of college life, but a fantasy - surely the worst failure of all for a novelist who prides himself on his Zolaesque realism.
Literature, Ezra Pound wrote, is news that stays news. But the news brought by Tom Wolfe's earlier novels is already fading into history (the New York of "Bonfire" was dead and buried by Giuliani's second term), and "Charlotte Simmons" brings no genuine news at all. This is a fatal problem for Mr. Wolfe, as it might not be for another kind of novelist, because he has never been able to discover the deeper, stranger, more elusive truths that fiction can bring - the truths of consciousness, which never become obsolete. That is why the realist novelists championed by Mr. Wolfe, like Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck, are less read and less regarded today than his modernist betes noirs, like Henry James and James Joyce. And that is why, as "I Am Charlotte Simmons" confirms, Mr. Wolfe may be an entertaining, intelligent, and popular novelist, but he will never be a genuinely literary one.