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Thursday, June 14, 2012

TOM WOLFE'S I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS





An hour in the coffee shop talking with someone from Bogota, Columbia, who was staying in Raleigh visiting friends. He had read Tom Wolfe's book, I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS, and wanted to see Sparta, the town Charlotte came from in the story. We had a good conversation. He knew English well enough that he was easy to talk with. He had a good mind and I saw right off I didn't need to explain anything. Except one time I spoke a sentence that had American connotations that didn't translate literally in the words used. It came up when I was saying of Charlotte Simmons, in her world, mountain culture, WHO you are is important. In the world outside the mountains, WHAT you are is important, and who you are counts for nothing. The who and the what threw him in translation. I saw it right away and did a clumsy job of attempting to explain, but got it across rather quickly. That's what I meant by him having a quick mind.


I explained it something like, Charlotte came from a culture that values WHO you are; your character is your value. She was thrown into a world where only WHAT you are has any value, and who you are is of no interest to anybody. In her case, who she was to everyone around her was what she was, a hillbilly. At the time, she didn't know hillbilly was a good thing. She learned. Two local women I know, women I think of as my friends, and I believe they think of me as their friend, separately told me in the time Wolfe's novel was getting it's little tiny bit of attention, told me of their similar experiences when they went off to college, one to Greensboro, one to Chapel Hill. The one in Greensboro came home and never went back. The one in Chapel Hill cloistered herself in her dorm room, pulled the shades and became good on her new guitar she'd saved money all summer to buy. Both are fiercely independent individuals. If these experiences sent them down the path they've been on throughout their adult lives, I can't say it was a bad thing. These are women I believe of integrity, who think about things and are slow to point the finger of blame. I think of them as some of the best people I know. I mean best where an ethical approach to everyone in their everyday lives is concerned.


The part I was wanting most to tell the reader from Bogota was interrupted when someone came in, sat between us and started conversation with me. It shut out the guy from Bogota. I felt a little awkward about it, but it was just one of those American moments of thoughtless interruption. We'd covered about everything we needed to say about the story. I had wanted to tell him about the Winston-Salem Journal sending a reporter to an English teacher at the high school in Sparta to interview her and some high school girls on what they thought of the book that none of them had read or heard of even, including the interviewer. What they had to say about the book revealed that none of them had read it, esp the one doing the interviewing. The article was pathetic. Junk journalism. The conclusion of the high school girls and the female teacher, remembering not one of them had read it, was that girls from Sparta aren't like that. Like what? Charlotte lost her precious virginity to a frat womanizer she was a momentary conquest to. It knocked her for a loop. A big loop. It sent her into deep depression, introspection, doubt, fear, loneliness, guilt out the yin yang. Sparta girls aren't like that? How do I know two, when I don't know very many people, relatively? I probably know a few more who have not told me their stories.


I ordered a copy of the novel from amazon and loved reading it. I like Wolfe's writing. I like the way he makes characters, his straight approach to the language, description and characterization. I felt like he wrote it to make a movie. It was written like it wouldn't take much to translate it to screenplay. It would have made a good movie. However, it looks a little bit microscopically at the big university jocks and the underbelly of university life as it was lived in the 90s. These are the children of the rich. Doesn't look good for the controlling 10%. In the time the book was new, it was as he described it. Heroin was the drug of choice among sorority babes. Sorority chicks and jocks an ongoing tailgate party. Charlotte the mountain girl, and mountain girls aren't necessarily innocent, was innocent as a baby in the atmosphere she'd entered without a clue. She landed on her face like a surfer overwhelmed by a wave she lacked experience for. That's not the end of it. The end of the story is that it doesn't happen again. She takes charge of her life after realizing that's what she has to do. It's part of growing up. I felt like Wolfe used her story to illustrate how far we have come in America from our origins as people who believed in God and education and personal integrity.


I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS is a story of decadence in the upper echelons of society, something like the people in Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, the decadence of entre deux guerres in the big European cities. The decadence illustrated by Georg Grosz in Zurich and Berlin during and after WWI. ECCE HOMO (this is man) is Grosz's book of illustrations. It's amazing. Wolfe was showing the decadence of the American rich in the 1990s, how their particular decadence manifests in the universities. The part Wolfe chose to leave out was how the black athletes rule the school. He chose to leave that one alone. That's a whole 'nother novel. Of course, it would be racist to point a finger at it. That would be a good one for a black writer to approach. It's probably been done a dozen times and I don't know it because I don't keep up with contemporary fiction or black fiction or Southern fiction or any of it. At this time in my life sometimes I like to read a contemporary Chinese novel from the mainland. It was taking a break from Chinese fiction to read Wolfe's book, which was an interesting leap from China now to America now and back to China now. Wolfe's novel would be either tremendously shocking to the Chinese sensibility or terribly avant garde. The same here. To some it was shocking, to some it was liberating to see a writer get right down to it without inhibition.


Getting past all the surface flash, the talk, the "language" was raw, straight-forward and how we talk. The sexual carryings on; it's what we humans do. Wolfe was just pulling back the curtain of denial to see what it was hiding. It's what he does. He's done it since KANDY COLORED TANGERINE FLAKE STREAMLINE BABY, shows Americans a part of ourselves we know is there but pay no attention to. Then Tom Wolfe writes about it and the decent thing to do is not to read it.
There were certain things I wish he'd done before he published it. Especially have somebody who knew the language here rewrite his "hick" language. For mountain accent Wolfe used the standard teenage boy imitation of exaggerated hick talk. It was corny and diminished the book for me, somewhat. Not a lot. When Charlotte was riding in her dad's pickup from Galax to Ennice, Wolfe described the road from Elkin to Twin Oaks. As not half a dozen people in this county read it, it doesn't matter at all, like the mountain accent. Charlotte's parents heated the house with coal, when in this part of the mountains we use wood. Some people use coal, but I personally don't know of any. None of that part matters.


Wolfe discovered Sparta via Roaring Gap, a country club in this county for the richest people in the South. So he didn't know anything about Alleghany County or Sparta except for what some outsiders have told him. He got enough. He got it that mountain people value who you are. That's all he really needed to connect with for the story. He connected with that very well. I Am Charlotte Simmons is so good a story about a mountain girl, I can't help but see it a shame he didn't pay more attention to the culture she came from. However, that's the only part of her culture that mattered for the story. It still made a good read. In Wolfe's defense, it's fiction. It does not have to be like anyplace. I was sorry the conversation was cut off with the man from Bogota when we were having good conversation. What he read of Sparta in the novel, and the Sparta he saw and heard about from somebody there who had read the book, gave him considerable insight into Charlotte's Blue Ridge Mountain home. I was thinking later that the what you are / who you are insight was good enough for him. He didn't need his mind cluttered with the story of what people who hadn't read it said about it. I'm glad I was able to provide him that insight. It felt like in the flow of the way things go that our conversation had come to its conclusion. Brief is good. He liked the novel so much, our conversation gave him a new way to look at it, a little insight into the ways of thinking among the people Charlotte came from, mountain culture.


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