Where that leaves the rest of the novel is in the set pieces, as usual with Wolfe. Whether it’s an account of a tailgate party or a gay-rights demonstration or a basketball game ("What the fuck are you man, a fucking tree?"), he pours on all the frothy reportorial details as fluently as ever, if to slightly less effect than in his two previous blockbusters, The Bonfire of the Vanities(1987) and A Man in Full (1998). We are treated to learned discourses on "fuck-patois," tutored in student slang ("sexiles" are students who’ve been kicked out of their rooms so their roommates can have sex; "Monets" are girls who look prettier from a distance than up close), given crash courses in Socrates and neuroscience and rap and musculature and student newspapers and how to get a Rhodes scholarship and much else besides. The familiar Wolfe-isms — the block capitals and italics and exclamation marks — are all there doing their customary work, and as always the reader can almost physically sense the author perched on his shoulder, urging him on page after page like a hypomanic jockey. (See how great that passage is! Do you have any idea how much research it took to come up with a scene like that! Think Mailer could pull that off? Ha ha ha . . .) The result can be a bit wearying, but it’s undoubtedly enjoyable too — a guilty, un-P.C. literary/journalistic feast.
Wolfe the novelist undeniably seems to lack something, and strains to compensate. When he enters into a character, you can almost see his negative capability taking notes. But we’ve all read books by supposedly instinctive, natural-born novelists of which we can barely remember a word, let alone a chapter or a scene. It’s hard to imagine saying the same of The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full and now I Am Charlotte Simmons. Which ought to count for something. A lot, actually.