Cover

CONTENTS

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Tom Wolfe

Dedication

Title Page

Vos Saluto

Prologue: The Dupont Man

1. That Single Promise

2. The Whole Black Player Thing

3. The Mermaid Blushed

4. The Dummy

5. You the Man

6. The Most Ordinary Protocol

Lost Province Entr’acte

7. His Majesty the Baby

8. The View up Mount Parnassus

9. Socrates

10. Hot Guys

11. Onstage, a Star

12. The H Word

13. The Walk of Shame

14. Millennial Mutants

15. The Tailgaters

16. The Sublime

17. The Conscious Little Rock

18. The Lifeguard

19. The Hand

20. Cool

21. Get What?

22. Shaking Hands with Fortune

23. Model on a Runway

24. To . . . Us!

25. You Okay?

26. How Was It?

27. In the Dead of the Night

28. The Exquisite Dilemma

29. Stand Up Straight for Gay Day

30. A Different Preposition

31. To Be a Man

32. The Hair from Lenin’s Goatee

33. The Soul Without Quotation Marks

34. The Ghost in the Machine

Copyright

Tom Wolfe

I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS

About the Author

Tom Wolfe is the author of more than a dozen books, among them such contemporary classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee University and a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale. He lives in New York City.

About the Book

Dupont University – the Olympian halls of learning housing the cream of America’s youth, the roseate Gothic spires and manicured lawns suffused with tradition… Or so it appears to beautiful, brilliant Charlotte Simmons, a sheltered freshman from Sparta, North Carolina, who has come here on a full scholarship. But Charlotte soon learns that for the upper-crust coeds of Dupont, sex, Cool, and kegs trump academic achievement every time.

As Charlotte encounters Dupont’s elite – her roommate, Beverly, a fleshy, privileged Brahmin in lusty pursuit of lacrosse players; Jojo Johanssen, the only white starting player on Dupont’s godlike basketball team; the Young Turk of Saint Ray fraternity, Hoyt Thorpe, whose heady sense of entitlement and social domination is clinched by his accidental brawl with a bodyguard for the governor of California; and Adam Gellin, one of the Millennium Mutants who run the university’s ‘independent’ newspaper and who consider themselves the last bastion of intellectual endeavour on campus – she gains a new, revelatory sense of her own power, that of her difference and of her very innocence. But little does she realise that she will act as a catalyst in all of their lives.

TO MY TWO COLLEGIANS

You have been a joy, a surprise, a source of wonderment for me at every stage of your young lives. So I suppose I shouldn’t be astonished by what you have done for me and this book; but I am, and dedicating it to you is a mere whisper of my gratitude. I gave you the manuscript hoping you might vet it for undergraduate vocabulary. That you did. I learned that using the oath Jesus Christ establishes the speaker as, among other things, middle-aged or older. So does the word fabulous, as in “That’s fabulous!” Today the word is awesome. So does jerk, as in “Whatta jerk!” It has been totally replaced by a quaint anatomical metaphor. Students who load up conversations with likes and totallys, as in “like totally awesome,” are almost always females. The totallys now give off such whiffs of parody, they are fading away, even as I write. All that was quite in addition to the many times you rescued me when I got in over my head trying to use current slang. What I never imagined you could do—I couldn’t have done it at your age—was to step back in the most detached way and point out the workings of human nature in general and the esoteric workings of social status in particular. I say “esoteric,” because in many cases these were areas of life one would not ordinarily think of as social at all. Given your powers of abstraction, your father had only to reassemble the material he had accumulated visiting campuses across the country. What I feel about you both I can say best with a long embrace.

VOS SALUTO

Many generous people helped me gather information for this book: college students, athletes, coaches, faculty, alumni, outriders, and citizens of an Eden in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Alleghany County. If it were possible, I would thank each and every one personally in these lines. I must certainly acknowledge a few who went far out of their way on my behalf:

In Alleghany County: MACK and CATHY NICHOLS,

whose understanding and eye for details were superb; LEWIS and PATSY GASKINS, who showed me the county’s extraordinary Christmas-tree farms, one of which was raising 500,000 trees; and the gracious staffs of ALLEGHANY HIGH SCHOOL and the ALLEGHANY CHAMBER OF COMMERCE.

At Stanford University:

media studies chieftain TED GLASSER; JIM STEYER, author of The Other Parent; comparative literature savant

GERALD GILLESPIE; Mallarmé scholar ROBERT COHN; young academic stars ARI SOLOMON and ROBERT ROYALTY and their student entourages.

At the University of Michigan:

communication studies maestro MIKE TRAUGOTT; and PEACHES THOMAS, who enabled a fool to rush into undergraduate nightlife where wise men never went.

At Chapel Hill:

CONNIE EBLE, lexicologist of college slang and author of Slang and Sociability;

DOROTHY HOLLAND, whose Educated in Romance blazed a trail in the anthropology of American college students;

JANE D. BROWN of Media, Sex and the Adolescent fame; and two especially insightful students, alumni

FRANCES FENNEBRESQUE and DAVID FLEMING.

In Huntsville, Alabama:

MARK NOBLE, the sports consultant famous for assessing, training, and healing Division I and professional athletes; GREG and JAY STOLT, and GREG JR.,

University of Florida basketball star now playing professionally in Japan; and Huntsville’s colorful counselor DOUG MARTINSON.

At Florida, in Gainesville:

BILL MCKEEN, journalism chairman, author of Highway 61, and a man with entrée to hot spots of undergraduate life, including “the Swamp,” a football stadium with a city throbbing beneath the grandstands.

In New York:

JANN WENNER, who once again walked me through the valley of the shadow of weary writing; and COUNSELOR EDDIE (“Get me Hayes!”) HAYES, who read much of the manuscript.

In dōmo:

My dear SHEILA,

“scribere iussit amor,” as Ovid put it. Scripsi.

Tom Wolfe

VICTOR RANSOME STARLING (U.S.), Laureate, Biological Sciences, 1997. A twenty-eight-year-old assistant professor of psychology at Dupont University, Starling conducted an experiment in 1983 in which he and an assistant surgically removed the amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter deep within the brain that controls emotions in the higher mammals, from thirty cats. It was well known that the procedure caused animals to veer helplessly from one inappropriate affect to another, boredom where there should be fear, cringing where there should be preening, sexual arousal where there was nothing that would stimulate an intact animal. But Starling’s amygdalectomized cats had gone into a state of sexual arousal hypermanic in the extreme. Cats attempted copulation with such frenzy, a cat mounted on another cat would be in turn mounted by a third cat, and that one by yet another, and so on, creating tandems (colloq., “daisy chains”) as long as ten feet.

Starling called in a colleague to observe. The thirty amygdalectomized cats and thirty normal cats used as controls were housed in cages in the same room, one cat per cage. Starling set about opening cages so that the amygdalectomized cats might congregate on the floor. The first cat thus released sprang from its cage onto the visitor, embracing his ankle with its forelegs and convulsively thrusting its pelvis upon his shoe. Starling conjectured that the cat had smelled the leather of the shoe and in its excitement had mistaken it for a compatible animal. Whereupon his assistant said, “But Professor Starling, that’s one of the controls.”

In that moment originated a discovery that has since radically altered the understanding of animal and human behaviour: the existence—indeed, pervasiveness—of “cultural para-stimuli.” The control cats had been able to watch the amygdalectomized cats from their cages. Over a period of weeks they had become so thoroughly steeped in an environment of hypermanic sexual obsession that behaviour induced surgically in the amygdalectomized cats had been induced in the controls without any intervention whatsoever. Starling had discovered that a strong social or “cultural” atmosphere, even as abnormal as this one, could in time overwhelm the genetically determined responses of perfectly normal, healthy animals. Fourteen years later, Starling became the twentieth member of the Dupont faculty awarded the Nobel Prize.

Simon McGough and Sebastian J. R.
Sloane, eds., The Dictionary of Nobel
Laureates, 3rd ed. (Oxford and New York:
Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 512.

PROLOGUE: THE DUPONT MAN

EVERY TIME THE men’s-room door opened, the amped-up onslaught of Swarm, the band banging out the concert in the theater overhead, came crashing in, ricocheting off all the mirrors and ceramic surfaces until it seemed twice as loud. But then an air hinge would close the door, and Swarm would vanish, and you could once again hear students drunk on youth and beer being funny or at least loud as they stood before the urinals.

Two of them were finding it amusing to move their hands back and forth in front of the electric eyes to make the urinals keep flushing. One exclaimed to the other, “Whattaya mean, a slut? She told me she’s been revirginated!” They both broke up over that.

“She actually said that? Re-virginated?”

“Yeah! Re-virginated or born-again virgin, something like that!”

“Maybe she thinks that’s what morning-after pills do!” They both broke up again. They had reached that stage in a college boy’s evening at which all comments seem more devastatingly funny if shouted.

Urinals kept flushing, boys kept disintegrating over one another’s wit, and somewhere in the long row of toilet cubicles somebody was vomiting. Then the door would open and Swarm would come crashing in again.

None of this distracted the only student who at this moment stood before the row of basins. His attention was riveted on what he saw in the mirror, which was his own fair white face. A gale was blowing in his head. He liked it. He bared his teeth. He had never seen them quite this way before. So even! So white! They vibrated from perfection. And his square jaw . . . that chin with the perfect cleft in it . . . his thick, thatchy light brown hair . . . those brilliant hazel eyes . . . his! Right there in the mirror—him! All at once he felt like he was a second person looking over his own shoulder. The first him was mesmerized by his own good looks. Seriously. But the second him studied the face in the mirror with detachment and objectivity before coming to the same conclusion, which was that he looked awesome. Then the two of him inspected his upper arms where they emerged from the sleeves of his polo shirt. He turned sideways and straightened one arm to make the triceps stand out. Jacked, both hims agreed. He had never felt happier in his life.

Not only that, he was on the verge of a profound discovery. It had to do with one person looking at the world through two pairs of eyes. If only he could freeze this moment in his mind and remember it tomorrow and write it down. Tonight he couldn’t, not with the ruckus that was going on inside his skull.

“Yo, Hoyt! ’Sup?”

He looked away from the mirror, and there was Vance with his head of blond hair tousled as usual. They were in the same fraternity; in fact, Vance was the president. Hoyt had an overwhelming desire to tell him what he had just discovered. He opened his mouth but couldn’t find the words, and nothing came out. So he turned his palms upward and smiled and shrugged.

“Lookin’ good, Hoyt!” said Vance as he approached the urinals. “Lookin’ good!”

Hoyt knew it really meant he looked very drunk. But in his current sublime state, what difference did it make?

“Hey, Hoyt,” said Vance, who now stood before a urinal, “I saw you upstairs there hittin’ on that little tigbiddy! Tell the truth! You really, honestly, think she’s hot?”

“Coo Uh gitta bigga boner?” said Hoyt, who was trying to say, “Could I get a bigger boner?” and vaguely realized how far off he was.

Soundin’ good, too!” said Vance. He turned away in order to pay attention to the urinal, but then he looked at Hoyt once more and said with a serious tone in his voice, “You know what I think? I think you’re demolished, Hoyt. I think it’s time to head back while your lights are still on.”

Hoyt put up an incoherent argument, but not much of one, and pretty soon they left the building.

It was a mild May night, with a pleasant breeze and a full moon whose light created just enough of a gloaming to reveal the singular, wavelike roof of the theater, known officially here at the university as the Phipps Opera House, one of the architect Eero Saarinen’s famous 1950s modern creations. The theater’s entrance, ablaze with light, cast a path of fire across a plaza and out upon a row of sycamore trees at the threshold of another of the campus’s renowned ornaments, the Grove. From the moment he founded Dupont University 115 years ago, Charles Dupont, the artificial dye king and art collector, no kin to the du Ponts of Delaware, had envisioned an actual grove of academe through which scholars young and old might take contemplative strolls. He had commissioned the legendary landscape artist Charles Gillette. Swaths of Gillette’s genius abounded across the campus. There was the Great Yard at its heart, the quadrangles of the older residential colleges, a botanical garden, two floral lawns with gazebos, tree-studded parking lots, but, above all, this arboreal masterpiece, the Grove, so artfully contrived you would never know Dupont was practically surrounded by the black slums of a city as big as Chester, Pennsylvania. Gillette had had every tree, every ground cover, every bush and vine, every grassy clearing, every perennial planted just so, and they had been maintained just so for the better part of a century. He had sent sinuous paths winding through it for the contemplative strolls. But although the practice was discouraged, students often walked straight through this triumph of American landscape art, the way Hoyt and Vance walked now beneath the brightness of a big round moon.

The fresh air and the peace and quiet of the huge stands of trees began to clear Hoyt’s head, or somewhat. He felt as if he were back at that blissful intersection on the graph of drunkenness at which the high has gone as high as it can go without causing the powers of reasoning and coherence to sink off the chart and get trashed . . . the exquisite point of perfect toxic poise. He was convinced he could once again utter a coherent sentence and make himself understood, and the blissful gale inside his head blew on.

At first he didn’t say much, because he was trying to fix that moment before the mirror in his memory as he and Vance walked through the woods toward Ladding Walk and the heart of the campus. But that moment kept slipping away . . . slipping away . . . slipping away . . . and before he knew it, an entirely different notion had bubbled up into his brain. It was the Grove . . . the Grove . . . the famous Grove . . . which said Dupont . . . and made him feel Dupont in his bones, which in turn made his bones infinitely superior to the bones of everybody in America who had never gone to Dupont. I’m a Dupont man, he said to himself. Where was the writer who would immortalize that feeling—the exaltation that lit up his very central nervous system when he met someone and quickly worked into the conversation some seemingly offhand indication that he was in college, and the person would (inevitably) ask, “What college do you go to?” and he would say as evenly and tonelessly as possible, “Dupont,” and then observe the reaction. Some, especially women, would be openly impressed. They’d smile, their faces would brighten, they’d say, “Oh! Dupont!” while others, especially men, would tense up and fight to keep their faces from revealing how impressed they were, and they’d say “I see” or “uhmm” or nothing at all. He wasn’t sure which he enjoyed more. Everyone, male or female, who was right now, as he was, in the undergraduate division, Dupont College, or had ever graduated from Dupont College knew that feeling, treasured that feeling, sought one way or another to enjoy that feeling daily if at all possible, now and for the rest of his life—yet nobody had ever captured that feeling in words, and God knows no Dupont man, or Dupont woman, for that matter, had ever tried to describe it out loud to a living soul, not even to others within this charming aristocracy. They weren’t fools, after all.

He looked about the Grove. The trees were enchanted silhouettes under a golden full moon. Merrily, merrily the gale blew on and—a flash of inspiration—he would be the one to put it all into words! He would be the bard! He knew he had it in him to be a writer. He had never had the time to do any writing other than papers for classes, but he now knew he had it in him. He could hardly wait for tomorrow when he would wake up and capture that feeling on the screen of his Mac. Or maybe he would tell Vance about it right now. Vance was just a few feet ahead of him as they walked through the enchanted Grove. Vance he could talk to about such a thing . . .

Suddenly Vance looked at Hoyt and held one hand up in the gesture that says “Stop” and put a forefinger up to his lips and pressed himself up against the trunk of a tree. Hoyt did likewise. Then Vance indicated they should peek around the tree. There in the moonlight, barely twenty-five feet away, they could make out two figures. One was a man with a great shock of white hair, sitting on the ground at the base of a tree trunk with his pants and his boxer shorts down around his ankles and his heavy white thighs spread apart. The other was a girl in shorts and a T-shirt who was on her knees between his knees, facing him. Her big head of hair looked very pale in the moonlight as it pumped up and down over his lap.

Vance pulled back behind the tree and whispered, “Holy shit, Hoyt, you know who that is? That’s Governor Whatsisname, from California, the guy who’s supposed to speak at commencement!” Commencement was Saturday. Tonight was Thursday.

“Then wuz he doing here now?” said Hoyt a little too loudly, causing Vance to put his forefinger to his lips again.

Vance chuckled deep in his throat and whispered, “That’s pretty fucking obvious, if you ask me.”

They peeked out from behind the tree again. The man and the girl must have heard them, because they were both looking their way.

I know her,” said Hoyt. “She was in my—”

“Fuck, Hoyt! Shhhhh!”

Bango! Something grabbed Hoyt’s right shoulder from behind in a terrific grip, and a tough-guy voice said, “What the fuck you punks think you’re doing?”

Hoyt spun around and found himself confronting a short but massively muscled man in a dark suit and a collar and tie that could barely contain his neck, which was wider than his head. A little translucent coiled cord protruded from his left ear.

Adrenaline and alcohol surged up Hoyt’s brain stem. He was a Dupont man staring at an impudent simian from the lower orders. “Doing?” he barked, inadvertently showering the man with spit. “Looking at a fucking ape-faced dickhead is what we’re doing!”

The man seized him by both shoulders and slammed him back against the tree, knocking the breath out of him. Just as the little gorilla drew his fist back, Vance got down on all fours behind his legs. Hoyt ducked the punch, which smashed into the tree trunk, and drove his forearm into his assailant—who had just begun to yell “Shiiiiiit” from the pain—with all his might. The man toppled backward over Vance and hit the ground with a sickening thud. He started to get up but then sank back to the ground. He lay there on his side next to a big exposed maple root, his face contorted, holding one shoulder with a hand whose bloody knuckles were gashed clear down to the bone. The arm that should have been socketed into the stricken shoulder was extended at a grotesque angle.

Hoyt and Vance, who was still on all fours, stared speechless at this picture of agony. The man opened his eyes, saw that his adversaries were no longer on the attack, and groaned, “Fugguz . . . fugguz . . .” Then, overcome by God knows what, he folded his face into another blind grimace and lay there moaning, “Muhfugguh . . . muhfugguh . . .”

The two boys looked at each other and, possessed by a single thought, turned toward the man and the girl—who were gone.

Vance whispered, “Whatta we do?”

“Run like a bastard,” said Hoyt.

Which they did. As they ran through the arboretum, the tree trunks and shrubs and flowers and foliage kept whipping by in the dark and Vance kept saying things like “Self-defense, self-defense . . . just . . . self-defense,” until he was too winded to run and speak at the same time.

They neared the edge of the Grove, where it bordered the open campus, and Vance said, “Slow . . . down . . .” He was so out of breath he could utter no more than a syllable or two after each gulp of air. “Just . . . walk . . . Got’act . . . natch’rul . . .”

So they emerged from the Grove walking and acting natural, except that their breathing sounded like a pair of handsaws and they were soaked with sweat.

Vance said, “We don’t”—gulp of air—“talk about this”—gulp of air—“to anybody”—gulp of air—“Right?”—gulp of air—“Right, Hoyt?”—gulp of air—“Right, Hoyt?”—gulp of air—“Fuck!”—gulp of air—“Listen to me, Hoyt!”

But Hoyt wasn’t even looking at him, much less listening. His heart was pumping just as much adrenaline as Vance’s. But in Hoyt’s case the hormone merely fed the merry gale, which now blew stronger than ever. He had deleted that sonofabitch! The way he had flipped that muscle-bound motherfucker over Vance’s back—ohmygod! He could hardly wait to get back to the Saint Ray house and tell everybody. Him! A legend in the making! He looked up and gazed at what lay just ahead of them, and he was swept by the male exhilaration—ecstasy!—of victory in battle.

“Look at it, Vance,” he said. “There it is.”

“There’s what, for Chrissake?” said Vance, who obviously wanted to move on, and fast.

Hoyt just gestured at it all.

The Dupont campus . . . The moon had turned the university’s buildings into a vast chiaroscuro of dark shapes brought out in all their sumptuousness by a wash of pale white gold. The towers, the turrets, the spires, the heavy slate roofs—all of it ineffably beautiful and ineffably grand. Walls thick as a castle’s! It was a stronghold. He, Hoyt, was one of a charmed circle, that happy few who could enter the stronghold at will . . . and feel its invincibility in their bones. Not only that, he was in the innermost ring of that charmed circle, namely, Saint Ray, the fraternity of those who have been chosen to hold dominion over . . . well, over everybody.

He wanted to impart this profound truth to Vance . . . but shit, it was such a mouthful. So all he said was, “Vance, you know what Saint Ray is?”

The total irrelevancy of the question made Vance stare back at him with his mouth open. Finally, in hopes of getting his accomplice moving again, he said, “No, what?”

“It’s a MasterCard . . . for doing whatever you want . . . whatever you want.” There wasn’t a single note of irony in his voice. Only awe. He couldn’t have been more sincere.

“Don’t say that, Hoyt! Don’t even think it! Whatever happened in the Grove, we don’t know what anybody’s talking about! Okay?”

“Stop worrying,” said Hoyt, sweeping his hand grandly from here to there, as if to take in the entire tableau before him. “Innermost ring . . . charmed circle.”

He was once more vaguely aware that he wasn’t altogether coherent. He only idly noticed the look of panic that stole across Vance’s moonlit face. What was Vance so squirrelly about? He was a Dupont man himself. Hoyt once more gazed lovingly upon the moon-washed kingdom before them. The great library tower . . . the famous gargoyles, plainly visible in silhouette on the corner of Lapham College . . . way over there, the dome of the basketball arena . . . the new glass-and-steel neuroscience center, or whatever it was—even that weird building looked great at this moment . . . Dupont! Science—Nobel winners! whole stacks of them! . . . although he couldn’t exactly remember any names . . . Athletes—giants! national basketball champions! top five in football and lacrosse! . . . although he found it a bit dorky to go to games and cheer a lot . . . Scholars—legendary! . . . even though they were sort of spectral geeks who floated around the edges of collegiate life . . . Traditions—the greatest!—mischievous oddities passed from generation to generation of . . . the best people! A small cloud formed—the rising number of academic geeks, book humpers, homosexuals, flute prodigies, and other diversoids who were now being admitted . . . Nevertheless! There’s their Dupont, which is just a diploma with “Dupont” written on it . . . and there’s the real Dupont—which is ours!

His heart was so full he wanted to pour it out to Vance. But the coherence problem reasserted itself, and all he could utter was, “It’s ours, Vance, ours.”

Vance put a hand over his face and moaned almost as pitifully as the little thug on the ground in the Grove. “Hoyt, you are so fucked up.”

ALSO BY TOM WOLFE

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

The Pump House Gang

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

The Painted Word

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine

The Right Stuff

In Our Time

From Bauhaus to Our House

The Bonfire of the Vanities

A Man in Full

Hooking Up

LOST PROVINCE ENTR’ACTE

DEAR MOMMA AND Daddy,

“I’ll admit my eyes blurred with mist when I saw you drive off in the old pickup.”

The old pickup? . . . my eyes blurred with mist? . . . She sighed, she groaned, deflated. What on earth did she think she was writing? She lifted her ballpoint from the top sheet of a pad of lined schoolroom paper and slumped back, or as far back as you could slump in an exhausted wooden chair with no arms. She looked out the window at the library tower. It was lit up ever so majestically in the dark. She saw it, and she didn’t see it. Beverly’s cast-off clothes mashed on the floor, Beverly’s web of extension cords plugged into surge-protector strips and knuckle sockets in midair, her rat’s nest of a percale-sloshed unmade bed, her littered CD cases, uncapped skin-care tubes, and spilled contact lens packets, her techie alphabet toys, the PC, the TV, the CD, DVD, DSL, VCR, MP4, all of them currently dormant in the absence of their owner, each asleep rattlesnake-style with a single tiny diode-green eye open—her roommate’s slothful and indulgent habits were all over the place . . . Charlotte was sort of aware of it and sort of wasn’t really.

She rocked forward with another trill of low-grade guilt to confront her letter home . . . the old pickup. Daddy is totally dependent on that poor, miserable old truck, and I’m treating it like it’s something quaint. Eyes blurred with mist . . . Yuk! She could just imagine Momma and Daddy reading that. The “pretty writing” . . .

She riiiiiiippped the sheet off the pad—then saved it. She could use it for scratch paper. She hunched over the desk and started again:

“Dear Momma and Daddy,

“I hope I didn’t seem too sad when you left that day. Watching you all drive off made me realize”—she starts to write, what a long journey I have set out upon, but the pretty-writing alarm sounds again, and she damps it down to “how much I was going to miss you. But since then I have been so busy studying, meeting new people, and”—she grandly thinks of figuring out Dupont’s tribal idiosyncrasies, already knowing she’s going to settle for “getting used to new ways of doing things, I haven’t had time to be homesick, although I guess I am.

“The classes haven’t been as hard as I was afraid they would be. In fact, my French professor told me I was ‘overqualified’ for his class! Since he had a peculiar way of teaching French literature, in my opinion, I wasn’t unhappy about switching to one a little more advanced. I have a feeling that it is harder to get into a university like this than it is to stay in it. I suppose I shouldn’t even think like that, however”—she starts to write lest I have a rude awakening—and how is lest supposed to sound in Alleghany County?—then downscales it to “because it might be bad luck.”

“The library here is really wonderful. You remember it, I’m sure, the tower, the tallest building on campus? It has nine million books, on every subject you can imagine, sometimes so many you hardly know where to start. It is really busy, too. There are as many students using the library at midnight as there are in the middle of the day. The other night I went there”—changes it to “I had to go there”—“kind of late, to use a computer, and there was only one computer not in use in a cluster of about 25 of them. I made a new acquaintance when we”—starts to write got into an argument, instead writes—“couldn’t figure out which of us was next in line.” So much for that—no name, no gender.

“My best friend so far is a girl from Cincinnati, Ohio, named Bettina, who lives on my floor. We met one night when each of us was having a hard time sleeping and decided to go down to the Common Room on the first floor and read for a while. Bettina is a very cheery and energetic person and not shy at all. If she wants to meet somebody, she just pipes right up and says hello.

“Generally I sleep very well. The only problem is that Beverly goes to bed really late”—starts to write 3, 4, even 5 a.m., instead writes—“2 a.m. sometimes, and it wakes me up when she comes in.”

She slumped back in the chair once more and stared out the window a few light-years into the darkness. This, she figured, was it. Right here was the point where she either cried out or she didn’t cry out. Momma, only you can help me! Who else do I have! Listen to me! Let me tell you the truth! Beverly doesn’t just return in the dead of the night and “go to bed really late”! She brings boys into bed—and they rut-rut-rut do it—barely four feet from my bed! She leads a wanton sex life! The whole place does! Girls sexile each other! Rich girls with fifteen hundred SATs cry out, “I need some ass!” “I’m gonna go out and get laid!” The girls, Momma, the girls, Dupont girls, right in front of you! Momma—what am I to do . . .

But she stiffened and swallowed it all. Just one little mention of . . . sex . . . and Momma the Wrath of God would head east in the pickup, and haul her back to Sparta, and the whole county would hum like a hive: “Charlotte Simmons has dropped out of Dupont. Poor thing thinks it’s immoral there.”

So she writes, “By the same token, when I get up in the morning at my usual time, it wakes Beverly up. We are getting used to each other, however, even though we don’t have many opportunities to spend time together. There seem to be a lot of her prep school friends here, and she also spends a lot of time with”—starts to write her boyfriend(s), instead crosses out the also and writes—“a lot of time with them. I’m not sure she has ever heard a Southern accent before.” She strikes out the previous sentence. Despite what a couple of people have said, she essentially has no regional accent. “Beverly and I get along fine, however.

“You wouldn’t believe how important sports are here! The big football and basketball stars are celebrities. Everybody on campus knows them by sight. There were four basketball players in the French course I started out in, and they were so tall they made everybody else feel like a midget. I met one of them. He was very friendly and complimented me on my performance in the class. The athletes like to pretend they don’t care about academic work, but I think this one really is interested, even though he acts as if he isn’t.” Dying to write He immediately invited me to grab some lunch, which is the prelude to grab some ass—but doesn’t take even one step down that road.

“Living in a coed dorm was strange at first. Pretty soon, though, the boys just seem like neighbors ‘across the way.’” Dying to write, By now I hardly notice them except when Beverly brings her hookups up to the room to give them some fresh meat. Actually writes, “That doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to learn about Dupont, but every freshman is in the same boat. The freshmen girls go around in little ‘herds’”—puts quotation marks around herds, doesn’t want to characterize them to Momma and Daddy as dumb animals, especially since that is what they are, dumb, frightened, rich rabbits, chronically, desperately, in heat—“so that they won’t feel both confused and lonely. Confused is bad enough!

“So everything is going along pretty much the way I hoped it would. I have to pinch myself to make sure this isn’t just a dream and I really am a student at one of the best universities in the country.” Thinks: where one and all make Channing and Regina look like harmless four-year-olds. “Dupont isn’t Sparta, but I’ve already come to believe that growing up in Sparta has advantages that people I’ve met from places like Boston and New York have never had.” Would love to write, They don’t realize that not everything you say has to be ironic or sarcastic and cynical and sophisticated and sick, virulent, covered in pustules, and oozing with popped-pustular sex. If only there were a way to slip that sentiment into a letter to Momma—without her exploding! Settles for “Some things money can’t buy.”

“I didn’t mean to make this letter so long. I should have written you before now to bring you up to date. Give my love to Buddy and Sam; also to Aunt Betty and Cousin Doogie. Tell them I miss them and that everything is going fine.

I love you,

Charlotte.”

She slumped back again . . . There it was—one long, well-intentioned lie.

For a long time she just sat in the chair and looked out the window in something close to a trance. The floodlights down below sent shadows up the sides of the library tower as if they weren’t shadows at all but great washes of watercolor. The undersides of the compound arches and decorative outcroppings caught the light here and there. What if she called Miss Pennington? She would be a lot more objective than Momma. She was wise as well as intelligent . . . Miss Pennington . . . She tried to imagine it—but what did Miss Pennington know about sex on the other side of the mountain? Nothing. How could she know? She was an old, homely spinster who had lived all her life in Sparta. Charlotte immediately chided herself for thinking that way about someone who had been so good to her. Yet it was true. “Spinster”—would anybody at Dupont even be aware of the word? No, the sex-obsessed know-it-alls of Dupont would sneak through Miss Pennington’s blood/brain barrier and swim through her arteries and veins like liver flukes until they found evidence, no matter how far-fetched, of lesbianism or transexuality or something else disgusting. They would roll her in their muck, all the while piously “defending” her right to her “orientation.” What hypocrites they were! Still, what did—how could—Miss Pennington know about it all? And she already knew what Miss Pennington would say: “Get busy, start a project, ignore them.” Be yourself, be independent, march to a different drummer, swim against the current—they’ll admire your courage, the way they do here—Oh, Miss Pennington! You don’t understand. In Sparta that was so easy. It was easy maintaining my pose, looking down my nose at the Channings and the Reginas all day with a Little Scholar’s sneer as they called me an “uptight cherry” and a lot of other things, and asked me—Regina once said it to my face—when I was going to “give it up.” It was easy, because at nightfall the skirmish was over, and I went home to Momma and Daddy and Buddy and Sam. Oh, I was superior to them, too, even to Momma. How backward I knew my family to be by the time I was thirteen! But that poor old shack out County Road 1709 was always there; it was mine. It reeked of kerosene and a coal grate, but no one could touch me, no one would try, no one could look Daddy in the face when his eyes went cold, no one dared provoke Cousin Doogie to the point where he bared his fangs. Once he threw rocks—“thhhhhhoo rrrocks,” as he spluttered it out later—at big Dave Cosgrove when Dave winked a sarcastic wink and said, “Reckon you ain’t fixing to give me no cherry on ice, hunh, Charlotte?” . . . rocks might’near big enough to kill him. Then Cousin Doogie stood there with another rock in his hand and said, “Try talking that way again, fat boy. I ain’t rammed a spit up a pig’s ass in a long time.” Dave, who must have weighed eighty pounds more than Cousin Doogie, just slunk away. That was why he went limp when he crashed the party after commencement. There was Cousin Doogie.

Here, now, at Dupont, when she came “home,” she wasn’t getting away from it all—right here was where she had to wallow in it all. Right here, in her “own” room, which was supposed to be a place of peace, sleep, and refuge—right here was where she got her nose shoved in the filth. It wasn’t so much a thought as an instinct: what she needed was somebody wise who also knew and who would assure her that yes, her situation was unjust, and yes, it was her duty to hold firm and remain independent, a rock amid the decadence all around her. That person, in the Dupont catalog, would be the R.A. Ha ha, a joke. Her R.A., Ashley, had immediately taken her for a hopelessly innocent little country girl and told her a sentimental lie about “dormcest.” She could just see Ashley’s “sincere” face and her flyaway tangles of blond hair—

Bango!

—the blond hair, the blond hair and the freckles: Laurie. Only a freshman herself, at North Carolina State, but Laurie was levelheaded and mature, at least compared to other girls at Alleghany High, and she was religious—New River Baptist Church, the Better Sort of Baptists, the in-town Baptists, as opposed to the foot-washing Baptists out in the countryside, even though the Better Sort also baptized people with full immersion in the New River at Easter when the water was still ice-cold. Laurie had convictions!

Charlotte got up from the chair and picked up the “room” telephone, a white portable. The instrument itself belonged to Beverly, but Charlotte could use it, entering her own code when she made a call. It was hardly ever used. Beverly lived on her cell phone, and Charlotte, like her folks, would do almost anything to avoid “calling long distance.” She felt reckless and oddly exhilarated. She punched in Information in Raleigh, North Carolina, for North Carolina State, hung up, and then punched in General Information at State. All this was going to cost money, but with giddy abandon she refused to think about that now. A recorded voice answered and instructed her to press this if she wanted this, or this for this, or this for this or . . . It was bewildering. She had to hang up and dial again . . . flinging money out the window. This time she concentrated on the disembodied instructions and pressed this for this . . . and this referred her to this or this or this, and this instructed her to punch in the first four letters of the last name, which she did, MCDO, which led her to a series of automated voices that went through the McDodds, McDolans, McDonoughs, and McDoovers before finally reaching the McDowells, whereupon another voice took over and ran A. J., Arthur, Edith, F., George, H. H., and Ian McDowell by her before reaching L. McDowell. Charlotte was frantic. She had never been in phone-mail jail before. She took a wild stab and responded yes to L. A squad of patched-together digital voices gave her L. McDowell’s number.

God knows what the Information calls alone cost. But now she’s drunk on her own heedlessness. She punches in the number, stretches the coiled cord, and sits back down in her chair. Seven rings, eight rings—not there, even if L. is Laurie—

“Hello?” Loud rap music in the background.

Terribly embarrassed: “May I speak to Laurie McDowell?”

Hesitation . . . “This is Laurie . . .”

Charlotte is elated! Laurie! Why hadn’t she called her in the first place? Laurie will know! Laurie will understand! Shivers of delight. She wants to laugh, she’s so happy. Almost a shriek: “Laurie! You know who this is?”

“No-o-o-o . . .”

Carried away by joy, she giggled, “Regina Cox.”

“Regina?—Charlotte!

Shrieks, laughter, interjections, I-can’t-believe-its, more shrieks and laughs. The rap music is banging away. “Knock it on some fox’s box, my cock”—blip: Doctor Dis. Since when was Laurie interested in rap?

“Regina . . . Charlotte, you are like totally—Ohmygod, I mean the day Regina—where are you?”

“In my room in the dorm.”

“At Dupont?”

“Yeah . . . at Dupont . . .”

“I can’t say you sound very excited. What’s it like? I can’t believe this! Like a hundred times I’ve been on the verge of calling you! I totally have!”

“Me, too—same thing.”

“The Dupont girl!” said Laurie. “Tell me everything! I’ve been like totally dying to know. Wait a minute, let me turn down this music. I can hardly hear you.”

Laurie and . . . all these totallys? The rap band banging in the background began to digit down, and the last thing Charlotte heard distinctly was Doctor Dis making one of those crude rap half rhymes, “. . . take my testi-culls, suck ’em like a popsi-cull . . .” For a moment she worried that the distraction would make Laurie forget what they were about to discuss, namely, Dupont. At the same time she didn’t want to pounce right back onto the subject herself, for fear of revealing how eager she was to talk about it.

Laurie returned to the telephone. “Sorry, I didn’t know I had it on so loud. You know who that was, the singer?”

“Doctor Dis,” said Charlotte. She left it at that. She didn’t want things to go off on a tangent about some stupid illiterate singer, if you could call rap singing. At the same time, she had a terrible itch of curiosity. “I didn’t know you liked rap.”

A bit defensive: “I like some of it.”

Dead air. Silence. It was as if the conversation had leaked out a hole. Charlotte ransacked her brain. Finally, “Is it like here? All anybody plays at Dupont is rap and reggae, except for the ones who like classical music and all that. There are a lot of musicians in my class.”

“Rap and reggae are really popular here, too,” said Laurie, “but there are a lot of kids, guys especially, who listen to country and bluegrass? I got enough of that in Sparta. But other’n’at, N.C. State’s like totally cool. It’s big! The first two weeks it liked to drive me crazy, it’s so big.” Liiiiked—sounded almost like locked. It was a relief to Charlotte to know that somebody else was in college with the Sparta accent, the Sparta diction, the Sparta “other’n’at,” the Sparta “liked to” for “almost,” the Sparta declarative sentence that modestly questions itself at the very end. Laurie would understand, if she could ever get her back on the subject. “At Dupont,” Laurie was saying, “do you have to do everything online?”

“Well, a lot of—”

Laurie talked right over the top of her. “Here you register for classes online, you turn in assignments online, if you need to ask a T.A. something about homework, you do it online—but I don’t mind.” With great enthusiasm she proceeded to tell Charlotte about the endless number of things that made N.C. State cool. “Everybody’s always talking about how State is an aggie college and all that? Well, there are a lot of really cool kids here. I’ve made so many friends?” Free-uns. “I’m glad I came here.”

Charlotte didn’t know what to say. Laurie liked it there. Since misery loves company, that was a disappointment.

Laurie said, “Well—what’s up with you? You’ve got to tell me all about Dupont!”

“Oh, it’s great, or I guess it’s great,” said Charlotte. “They sure tell you enough it’s great.”

“What do you mean?”

Charlotte told her about the speech by the dean of Dupont College at the “frosh” convocation, the medieval banners, the flags of forty-three nations, the name-dropping, the Nobel-dropping—

“That’s what they say, and what do you say?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Charlotte. “It probably is that great, but I don’t know what difference it makes.”

“Oh wow,” said Laurie. “You’re sure jumping for joy.”

Charlotte said, “Do you live in a coed dorm?”

“Do I live in a coed dorm? Yeah. Practically everybody does. Do you?”

“Yeah,” said Charlotte. “What do you think of it?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Laurie. “It was weird at first. The guys were totally loud all the time. But now it’s like calmed down. I don’t think about it much anymore.”

“Have you ever heard of sexiling?”

“Yeah . . .”

“Has it ever happened to you?”

To me? No, but it happens.”

“Well—it happened to me,” said Charlotte. “My roommate comes in about three o’clock in the morning and—” She proceeded to tell the story. “But the worst thing was the way she made me feel guilty. I was supposed to know that if she gets drunk and picks up some guy somewhere and brings him up to the room, that’s more important than me being able to stay in my room and get some sleep before a test in the morning.”

A pause. “I guess it’s the same way here.”

“At Dupont,” said Charlotte, “everybody thinks you’re some kind of—of—some kind of twisted . . . uptight . . . pathetic little goody-goody if you haven’t had sex. Girls will come right out and ask you—girls you hardly even know. They’ll come right out and ask you—in front of other girls—if you’re a V.C., a member of the Virgins Club, and if you’re stupid enough to say yes, it’s an admission, like you have some terrible character defect. They practically sneer. If you don’t have a boyfriend, you’re a loser, and if you want a boyfriend, you have to have sex. There’s something perverted about that. Don’t you agree with me? This is supposed to be this great university, but it’s like if you haven’t ‘given it up,’ as Regina used to say, then you just don’t belong here. I’d say that’s perverted. Am I right—or do I just not get it or something? Is it like that there?”

Pause. “More or less.”

“So what do you do when it comes up? What do you say?”

Long pause. “I guess I like . . . don’t say anything.”

“Then what do you do?” said Charlotte.

Longer pause. “I guess I try to look at it in a different way. I’ve never lived anywhere but Sparta before. College—I don’t know, I guess I think of college as this opportunity to . . . to experiment. I needed to like get away from Sparta for a while.”

“Well—me, too,” said Charlotte. She couldn’t imagine why Laurie was saying anything so obvious.

Still longer pause. “You think maybe it’s possible you got away, but you brought a lot of Sparta with you to Dupont?” said Laurie. “Without knowing it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m just asking . . . like suppose it’s something to consider. I guess what I really mean is college is like this four-year period you have when you can try anything—and everything—and if it goes wrong, there’s no consequences? You know what I mean? Nobody’s keeping score? You can do things that if you tried them before you got to college, your family would be crying and pulling their hair out and giving you these now-see-what-you’ve-gone-and-done looks?—and everybody in Sparta would be clucking and fuming and having a ball talking behind your back about it?—and if you tried these things after you left college and you’re working, everybody’s gonna fucking blow a fuse, and your boss or whoever will call you in for a—”

—the fucking just slipped out and hit Charlotte in the solar plexus—Laurie!

“—little talk, he’ll call it, or if you have a boyfriend or a husband, he’s gonna totally freak out or crawl off like a dog, which would be just as bad, because it’d make you feel guilty? I mean, look at it that way, Charlotte. College is the only time in your life, or your adult life anyway, when you can really experiment, and at a certain point, when you leave, when you graduate or whatever, everybody’s memory like evaporates. You tried this and this and this and this, and you learned a lot about how things are, but nobody’s gonna remember it? It’s like amnesia, totally, and there’s no record, and you leave college exactly the way you came in, pure as rainwater.”

“Tried what