Now it can be told: Boston to read Perrotta

One City, One Story
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  August 29, 2010

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If you haven't read Tom Perrotta's short story "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face," don't worry: there are 30,000 opportunities to do so coming to town very soon. "Happy Chang," an F-bomb-laced story about a guy who may be the world's most conflicted Little League umpire, written by the guy who brought you Election, has been chosen by the Boston Book Festival as Boston's first city-wide read. It'll be available for free in pocket-size editions and on the Internet beginning in October.

"It was something of an edgy decision for them," says Perrotta, who lives in Belmont. "When you're dealing with a large population of readers, there might be a tendency to go for something safe or inoffensive. Any time a story deals with a hot-button issue that doesn't make everybody look good, you run the risk of offending people, but you also run the much better risk of provoking thought or discussion. I hope that happens."

The story had to make it through a panel of Boston's public librarians, members of the Book Festival board, and representatives from local literary organizations, who read dozens of stories before choosing Perrotta's. "We felt it was a story that almost anybody could relate to," says BBF president Deborah Z. Porter. "It raises so many questions about moral issues, sportsmanship, and tolerance."

In other parts of the country, "One City, One Book" projects have become widely praised civic reading initiatives. The lack of such a program prompted the Boston Globe to wonder, back in June, why such a literate city as ours hadn't yet produced one. (The answer, in a nutshell: they're expensive, and the mayor isn't behind it.)

So the Boston Book Festival's effort is something smaller — a short story, rather than a novel — but also, says Porter, more accessible: namely, by printing a commuter-friendly edition and distributing the story for free online.

Perrotta also chalks this up as a victory for the form — and hell, for himself. "Short stories tend to be a niche item in the literary universe," he says. "For the most part, people who read them . . . identify themselves as fans. My story isn't part of a collection, so I think it's going to reach a lot of people it wouldn't have otherwise reached. For anyone writing fiction these days, that's huge."

At this year's Book Fest, Perrotta will be an ambassador for the One-City read, which will include outreach events in Boston's neighborhoods. There will also be a town-hall discussion of the story at the Book Festival itself, which takes over multiple venues in Copley Square on October 16. (For a nearly complete lineup of readers and presenters, visit bostonbookfest.org.)

Although Perrotta is originally from New Jersey, the ambassador role is one that suits him — he's a steadfast supporter of Grub Street, PEN New England, and 826 Boston. "There really is a great community of writers and readers here," he says, "which is one of the things I really love about it."

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