I reviewed Tom Perrotta’s new story collection Nine Inches for the Dallas Morning News. Here’s how my review begins:
(St. Martin’s, $25.99)
My daughter reported that her first-grade teacher said, “Sometimes when people get really sad, they go into the garage, close the door, and leave the car running.”
Furious, I fantasized about just what I’d like to say to this teacher, who I’d always found suspect. I complained to the principal, who made the teacher call me. She sounded so pitiful as she explained how she’d uttered this during a lesson on carbon monoxide that I held back from yelling at her. Instead I calmly told her that suicide was not an appropriate topic for first-graders and channeled my rage into referring to her as “Morticia” around the house.
If I were a character in a Tom Perrotta story, I’d have slugged Morticia. Or scattered trash around her yard. Or I’d have launched into an Ahab-like quest to convince the school board to fire her, which would ultimately result in my own undoing.
Perrotta’s six sharp, popular novels, including Election and Little Children, established him as the bard of neighborhood grievance. The stories in his new Nine Inches function as revenge fantasy fulfillment for those of us who avoid pushing confrontations past polite disagreement. Perrotta perfectly captures the low-level agony the people we’re forced to engage with — neighbors, teachers, co-workers, Little League coaches, students and spouses — can cause us.
Perrotta’s stories often build up to that moment when, if characters act prudently, their major problems will sort themselves out. Instead, Perrotta’s characters hurtle toward conflict, betrayal or self-sabotage, leaving them with unfamiliar lives. His archetypal suburban setting enhances the drama and comedy, because of the assumption that people who’ve earned these good houses, jobs, schools and communities are supposed to know how to behave.
Take Donald, the luckless high school graduate in “Backrub.” He’d achieved high grades and SAT scores, but no college accepted him. His guidance counselor “insisted that it was just a freak occurrence, a perfect storm of bad luck and rotten demographics.” So while his friends head to Stanford and Pomona, embittered Donald delivers pizza and plans to apply again the next year. But he becomes accustomed to the pizza delivery lifestyle, is drawn into a pot-selling operation and leaves his safety school applications to the last minute, answering the question “Why Fairfield?” with “You’re my Safety School, [expletive].”
Time and again, Perrotta’s characters pass up the chance to set their lives back on track and instead choose to go down in a blaze of glory, to the reader’s vicarious delight.
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