Taking a break from reading 676-page "I Am Charlotte Simmons" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), Tom Wolfe's primal scream of a public service announcement that depicts college as more Hefner mansion than ivory tower, I happened to scan an article about a new trend in architectural preservation. Rural shacks, sheds and ramshackle barns are no longer seen as demolition targets, The New York Times reports, but rather as favored facades for contemporary arts and leisure activities among professionals with second homes. Naturally, an old barn becomes an art studio, but a pigpen also becomes a poolside cabana, and a 19th-century chicken coop becomes a 21st-century space for a film production company and a business making "waterproof postsurgical booties for dogs."
How antiseptic life on these old farms has become. No muck, no sweat. No remnants of the herd life that once defined the landscape. It's an interior world now, of stretched canvas, computer disks, videotape, clean towels and tiny rubber boots. This may be a leap, but I can't help comparing this postmodern version of "clean" living to the destiny of Wolfe's brave new collegians. How will they ever sweep away the dirt of the sordid, subhuman life they lead at his novel's Dupont College?
This isn't to say that Wolfe's book about sex and the college kid is a shock, exactly. You would have to live somewhere over the rainbow, beyond the range of the satellite dish, not to be familiar with the pulsating, orgiastic media sac in which parents set their teens to gestate, where they suck up the noxious currents of scatologically idiotic Hollywood and sexually berserk MTV until society deems them fit for four years of "higher education." This is the point at which we meet them in the book. What follows -- the phenomenon of "hooking up" and related degradations described in this investigation of the decline of a freshman woman -- is not what's new. But in the Wolfeian accumulation of detail, much of it clinical, and the torrential rain of expletives, there is an unavoidable tsunami of revelation, all of it crashingly depressing. College as we know it becomes something to rethink, particularly at $40,000 per annum.