Saturday, October 12, 2013

Measured prose

In Nine Inches, Tom Perrotta returns to familiar terrain (amid fading light)

The following review has been posted on the Books page at the History News Network.

This summer I taught a class of largely minority students facing varying degrees of academic challenges. Seeking to give them a diet of adolescent-friendly fare for discussion and writing, I turned to figures like Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco and the Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz, to whom I was confident they could relate. Although I was less confident about it, I also decided to use Tom Perrotta's 1994 debut collection of short stories, Bad Haircut, which traces the life of a 1970s adolescent named Buddy from middle school through his high school graduation. (The juxtaposition with Diaz, another New Jersey chronicler of the suburbs whose fiction also includes subjects like coming to terms with the homosexuality of friends, proved to be quite arresting.) I'm happy to say my students loved Bad Haircut.

Having followed Perrotta through a half-dozen subsequent novels -- among them the bestselling Little Children (which was made into a movie) and The Leftovers (soon to be an HBO series) -- I was pleased to learn that his new book, Nine Inches, would be his second story collection. Unlike Bad Haircut, which followed a single character, these stories, many set in the fictional town of Gifford, (presumably not far from the imaginary Cranwood of Bad Haircut), depict a range of people, from high school students to senior citizens, policemen to doctors, solid citizens to small-time criminals. It's inevitable, then, that this collection would not have quite have the narrative cohesion of the first one.

Thematically, however, Nine Inches is surprisingly tight -- and surprisingly grim. Perrotta has been called "an American Chekov" and "the Steinbeck of suburbia," but the mood of this book is closer to the early James Joyce of The Dubliners, where protagonists have negative epiphanies in which they confront limitations they'd managed to avoid recognizing they have. Those limitations include character defects, like the math teacher of "Grade My Teacher," who, in disclosing more than she should to a student, hesitates "long enough to realize she was making a mistake, then kept going" (and going). They also include recognizing dreams that will never be fulfilled, like those of the regretful, abusive father of "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face"or the amateur blues guitarists of "One-Four-Five," who know they can never compensate for the families they have lost.

This sense of despair infects even 21st century Perrotta adolescents, of whom he writes with same assured air that he does of nineties kids in Election or seventies teens in Bad Haircut (he acknowledges his late-adolescent children as the source of anecdotes that "blossomed into stories"). Perrotta was far too satirical -- and far too realistic -- to ever suggest that the intensity of Tracy Flick in Election or the passivity of Dave Raymond in The Wishbones would ever be transformed much later in their lives. Still, you could have a sense of hope for them that's harder to feel for the concussion-stricken football player of "Senior Season" or the cynical protagonist of "The Test Taker," who impersonates his fellow students on the SATs. "I honestly didn't mind cheating for strangers," he explains. "If somebody wanted to pay me to help them get into a good college, I didn't see anything wrong with that. It wasn't all that different from hiring an expensive tutor, or getting a doctor diagnose a learning disability so you could buy yourself some extra time. That was just the way the system worked." He gets his comeuppance (and strikes back in ways that may make you feel complicit in your satisfaction), just as the retired narrator of "Kiddie Pool" is repaid for trespassing in his neighbor's garage with an unwelcome discovery.

To at least some extent, the downbeat mood of Nine Inches is offset by the sheer narrative invention in some of these stories. Donald, the narrator of "Backrub," who somehow managed to not to get into one of the twelve colleges to which he applied, finds himself stopped repeatedly by a policeman, who makes an unexpected demand (to which the Donald responds in an unexpected way before making an unexpected revelation). "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face" is a particularly intricate story, weaving a father's confession and adult psychodrama through an exciting rendition of a Little League championship game. The title story, which refers to the distance eighth graders must maintain at a middle school dance, is marked by a notably graceful contrapuntal style of storytelling that is Perrotta's trademark.

Perrotta's last book, The Leftovers, was very clearly an attempt to break new creative ground by venturing into the world of science fiction -- and bending the genre in a distinctly literary direction. In that light, it's possible to see Nine Inches as a retreat onto more familiar terrain. But for my money this is a more satisfying book, because it showcases a writer on his home turf, working within a familiar framework with uncommon power.

Though he ends the book on a lighter note with a redemptive story of second chances, I'm nevertheless saddened by the receding sense of possibility that seems to mark Perrotta's vision. Or maybe like the characters of these stories, I too am belatedly waking up to the reality he's been describing all along. The historical context for Nine Inches is worth noting: demographers are telling us that the suburbs are less attractive than they used to be for young people, who are returning to cities in numbers that have not been seen in close to a century. (One of the more memorable stories of Bad Haircut was "You Learn to Live," about the great adolescent ritual of learning to drive, which teenagers are doing less frequently now.)

I find the angst here a little curious because at least superficially, it would seem that Perrotta, himself a product of New Jersey, ripened artistically on a suburban vine. Of course it would be stupid to suggest hypocrisy -- as an artist, he has to call 'em as he sees 'em, and it's likely that a Perrotta story set in a high-rise or on a farm would also be marked by negative epiphanies.  As someone who has also staked his ground in the suburbs, I can't help but hope that a future filing from the village will be more promising. But maybe that's another way I'm like the people of those stories, waiting for my train to come in.