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Education Reporter

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I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2004, 675 pp., $28.95.

The greatest living American satirist has set his sights on the deficient culture of selective universities in this very raunchy but ultimately moralistic pageturner of a novel.

Only slightly exaggerating the vulgarity and hedonism of elite secular college campuses today, Wolfe masterfully captures the speech patterns of relevant sociological types, from testosterone-crazed frat boys and athletes to hillbillies and catty sorority girls to smug left-wing professors and potty-mouthed gay/lesbian protesters to manipulative coaches and ambitious-but-nerdy student journalists.

In following the freshman-year career of a high-minded but fallible small-town girl, Wolfe performs the same service for a college student that the novel Madame Bovary performs for a wife contemplating an adulterous affair or the film Fatal Attraction performs for a husband tempted by a fling: showing in unsparing detail the ugly consequences of an anything-goes approach to sexuality.

The author has made no secret of his shock at the current state of affairs on campus. "I think it's hardest on young women. They have much more to lose - which is their femininity. And the idea that the great reward of the mating game comes first and then you get to know each other after - well, there's something very hard on women about that, I think," he observed in an interview. (USNews.com, 11-15-04)

The novel, set at a mythical Pennsylvania university reminiscent of Princeton and Duke, is as engrossing to college students as to their parents. Their grandparents, farther removed from the current realities of campus life, are unlikely to tolerate the fusillade of four-letter words. However, this is trash-talking with a purpose; only a true craftsman could have pulled it off (though it is disappointing that such an eminent man of letters apparently does not know the meaning of "unrequited love," which he mistakenly uses to mean unfulfilled passion between two lovers).

If the story is occasionally implausible and the ending less than satisfying, well, this is satire, not Dickens. Tom Wolfe has held up a mirror to our elite campus culture, and the image is unsettling. The eponymous heroine's poor-hick but grounded Appalachian parents come off better than anyone else.

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