Among the usual melange of undergraduates at an October 2001 Delta Psi cocktail party, one guest stood out. At 73 years old, dressed in his trademark blazer and necktie, novelist Tom Wolfe sipped a drink and wandered about the soiree like any other partygoer.
Unlike the other guests, however, Wolfe was not there merely to socialize. He was conducting research for his latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, which depicts modern college life.
Released Tuesday, the novel gives a less than flattering representation of college students as sex-crazed and alcohol-obsessed.
The novel is told mostly through the eyes of its title character, a brilliant yet sexually inexperienced freshman at the fictitious Dupont University. Charlotte is horrified to discover the promiscuous behavior of her collegiate peers.
"He wanted to get a flavor for what it was really like," said party attendee and Class of '03 College alumnus John Sarokhan, a Delta Psi -- or St. Anthony Hall -- brother.
Apparently, Wolfe had not contacted St. Anthony prior to his visit. He simply dropped by unannounced.
"It was totally serendipitous," St. Anthony brother and Class of '03 Wharton alumnus Alex Jachmich said.
"We were all taken by surprise when he crossed the threshold," he added.
Some fans of the author were a little starstruck.
"I love Tom, so it was great for me personally," St. Anthony member and Class of '04 College graduate Rob Tawse said.
According to guests, Wolfe interacted with the students and was taken on a tour of the house. He was interested in learning about what it was like being a student and how fraternities can be stereotyped.
Reviews of Charlotte Simmons are decidedly disappointing. The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani describes the novel as "flat-footed" and "empty."
Some reviewers claim that Wolfe's depiction of college life is trite and stereotypical, leaving readers yearning for the cutting-edge prose of Wolfe's past hits like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full.
Yet, Wolfe defended his work in a recent interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
"This kind of book has never been done before," Wolfe said.
"It's odd that it hasn't. But I can't think of a single book that explores the life of undergraduates from within." In addition to Penn, Wolfe also did research at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton universities, as well as the University of Michigan and the University of Florida.