Two of the most talked about books of the last couple of months have to be Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons” ($28.95, Farrar Straus Giroux) and Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty” ($24.95, Bloomsbury).

On the surface, both seem similar. Each features graphic sexual scenes. Each takes a social group and skewers it. And each has prompted plenty of debate.

For some, “Charlotte Simmons” depicts the moral bankruptcy of today’s college students, who are allegedly sex-depraved. And for some, “The Line of Beauty” is an attack on the policies of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the rise of AIDS.

But the similarities end there. Quite simply, “Charlotte Simmons” is a shallow, shameful wallowing in stereotypical, cardboard characters. Few of the protagonists, not even Simmons, are truly deserving of empathy, at least not as Wolfe presents them.

Certainly, there are moments in his overwritten, overlong tale that will resonate with college-age students, many of whom may wince knowingly at the laying bare of their insecurities. And Wolfe, who has long been known for his journalistic skills, has a knack for detailing the latest fads.

But Wolfe’s treatment of women makes “Charlotte Simmons” one of the most sexist books by a prominent author this year. Nearly all the women in the novel, including the studious and bright Charlotte, end up defining themselves by their boyfriends. The women on the fictional campus of DuPont University aren’t able to muster the self-respect or dignity to see their inherent value.

The only exception to this rule is a campus radical, and she’s a mannish, foul-mouthed lesbian – of course.

No wonder the book won the Bad Sex Award from London’s Literary Review judges.

As such, “Charlotte Simmons” can be easily considered the worst novel in the once-illustrious career of Wolfe, who gave us two entertaining journalistic books – 1967’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and 1979’s “The Right Stuff.”

“The Line of Beauty,” however, is an artful satire of a group of people who put on the most delightful of fronts while secretly wishing each other the worst. It’s filled with self-centered, self-delusional characters, but the protagonists are headed for a Henry James-like tragedy that will make them grow and realize the shallowness of their milieu.

Imagine that! Actual growth through experience.

“The Line of Beauty,” which recently won Britain’s top literary prize, the Man Booker, focuses on Nick Guest, a young man who moves in with the family of a college friend and becomes caught up in the economic boom years of the early ‘80s.

Everyone, it seems, is in thrall of Thatcher, who showed the Argentines who was boss in the Falklands War. And everyone, including Nick, wants a piece of the action.

But Nick, in Jamesian style, is clearly on the outside looking in, even if he doesn’t recognize it. He’s a gay man in a world where conformity is valued above all. And he witnesses a parade of people who exude good manners while harboring hate.

While Wolfe hits us over the head with a hammer, Hollinghurst delightfully insinuates. While Wolfe treats his characters with disdain, Hollinghurst sees the humor and depths in everyone, even the self-delusional.

It’s the difference between polemics and art. The collegiate tale of Charlotte Simmons appears destined to flunk the test of time. Nick Guest won’t.



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