FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE LEFTOVERS. Fiction writer Tom Perrotta’s work is becoming better known because of the HBO Series The Leftovers. The series, now finishing its first season, is about the aftermath of a global cataclysm in which 140 million people have mysteriously disappeared. The episodes focus on stories of a small New York suburb coping with the phenomenon.
I first came to read Perrotta when I was teaching a Topics in Literature class called “The Suburbs in Fiction, Film and Material Culture.” I used the film adaptation of his Little Children, another story set in a suburb outside an eastern seaboard city. The title of the book and the adaption refers to the community’s little children that must be protected from a child abuser who has just moved back in to the house of his overbearing mother. But it also refers to a cluster of men who are in a state of arrested development, victims of the “I won’t grow up!” Peter Pan syndrome. A stay at home dad, studying to retake the law examination, would rather spend his time skateboarding with the local teens and courting a stay at home mom who he meets at the playground. The husband of this woman has a good job in the financial industry but choses to spend his time at home trolling porn sites. A discredited cop mounts an over-zealous vigilante crusade against the pathetic pederast. They are the real little children.
Perrotta is hardly the first American writer to write satirically about the trouble in the suburban paradise. In the 20s Sinclair Lewis lampooned the ambitions and dissatisfactions of real-estate broker and municipal booster George Babbitt. During the great post-war decades of suburbanization the New Yorker writers John Cheever and John Updike revealed the realities beneath the suburban veneer of calm and contentment. Exploring the lives of the inhabitants of their mythical suburbs, Cheever’s Shady Grove and Updike’s Tarbox, both document the alcohol fueled social rituals, the strained marriages and frequent infidelities, the neighborly affections and antagonisms, the parental ambition for the success of their children, and the striving for meaning amidst the affluence. Together these elegant writers provided an alternative vision of the suburbs as portrayed in the Ozzie and Harriet sitcoms of the day.
Taking its place then in this tradition is Perrotta’s 2013 collection of short stories, Nine Inches. It’s a tidy collection of ten stories that reveal different suburban lives. Perrotta is every bit the satirist as his predecessors but his style is more pedestrian. He is not the keen observer of the sensuous surfaces of everyday objects, as is Updike, nor does he have melancholy and sense of deep tragedy that Cheever mixes with his gentle humor. But he very much carries on the tradition of taking the complicated lives of suburbanites seriously. If you are a suburbanite, especially if you live in one of the tonier inner-ring suburbs, you will find Perrotta’s literary turf recognizable.
Given the rising importance of the suburban high school as site of socialization and gateway to a better life, it’s not surprising that six of the stories focus on the teachers, students, and the special events, like homecoming and graduation, in the school calendar. Three of the stories present us with late-teen male narrators who are reminiscent of Updike’s Sammy, the sensitive supermarket checkout guy in “A&P.” As in the Updike story, the desire for an unattainable girlfriend and the awkwardness of courtship drive the story. In “Test-Taker” the precocious junior who fraudulently takes the ACT for other students is faced with the opportunity to sabotage the exam of a classmate, a son of one of the suburb’s elite and a rival for the affections of a girl. In “Senior Season,” a football player, put out of commission with a series of concussions, faces the social death that non-participation creates. He seethes when a fellow linebacker easily moves in on his girlfriend, a shapely and popular cheerleader. He can only watch the pre-game bonfire from afar, hope that going off to college will serve to wipe his slate clean, and develop a relationship with an 80 year old neighbor who meticulously keeps her lawn free of leaves. In the third teenage angst story, a new graduate’s life spins out of control after he has been rejected by all twelve of the colleges to which he has applied, even the “safeties.” These are the schools he thought he would easily get into, but he can’t even make it off their waitlist.
Updike made a career out of recording the many skirmishes on the marital battlefield and on following the fortunes of the newly divorced. In a number of Perrotta stories the central character is a divorced person coming to terms with the single status and navigating the uncertain waters of a new relationship. The title story, “Nine Inches,” refers to the required distance between high school dance partners that an event chaperone must monitor. Over the course of the evening, chaperone Ethan, the middle school teacher who ambivalent leaves his wife and two-year old, relives a previously unconsummated fling with Charlotte, the Bohemian art teacher, who is also pressed into duty. The presence of young lovers triggers his own libido.
In a similar story, the central character is super-mom and mega-volunteer Liz, the divorced mother of a high school senior who has started to sleep with her boyfriend. Assigned to work the Chilling Station, a quiet refuge for the sleepy and exhausted patrons of the All Night Graduation Dance, Liz strikes up a conversation with officer Brian Annuzzi, a cop who a few years before had pulled her over for speeding, late for her daughter’s soccer practice. The story ends with them meeting for a 3AM coffee after Liz has created a minor disturbance at the dance. Acting on behalf of a girl who has been jilted by her boyfriend, she audaciously slaps the kid in the presence of his new honey.
A number of his divorced characters face crisis moment: How should a volunteer Little League umpire deal with his obnoxious ex-neighbor, the way-too-serious coach of one of the teams playing for the championship? How should a teacher respond to a damaging quote posted by one of her indifferent students on the RateMyTeacher website? Should a pediatrician, divorced from his wife for a one-night drunken tryst with a Russian hospital worker, give up his practice to pursue a career as a blues musician?
Whether the characters or an outside narrator tell the story, Perrotta effectively limns the emotional lives of these suburbanites. He writes about their struggles perceptively and, despite their many imperfections, treats them affectionately. And after reading the collection, we share the sympathy.