Difficult people

Tom Perrotta keeps his characters company through the bumps and bumbles of American life
By JAMES PARKER  |  October 3, 2007

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Tom Perrotta will read from The Abstinence Teacher at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on October 16.

As a reader of fiction, at this point in life I’m sort of in my late Imperial phase — a sensationalist, easily distracted, with a vulgar appetite for brilliance. There are few greater snoozes, for me, than the pious functions of the middlebrow novel: mood, theme, zzzz. If the fireworks and the dancing horses are not immediately produced, I snort and make my exit.

So how come I like Tom Perrotta so much? How come I read his books with the same year-by-year loyalty with which I once listened to albums by R.E.M.? Stylistically, the man is — at first glance — invisible: no flash, no phrasemaking. And his fictional milieu is half-dead. Perrotta’s characters live in the agnostic suburbs of the Northeast, their speech is tainted with cliché and the jargon of mass culture, and their doomed little attempts at eroto-spiritual freedom are recorded in simple, un-lyrical, occasionally almost arid prose. “Ruth arrived late and mildly hungover for her daughter’s soccer game on Saturday morning,” begins a chapter in his new novel The Abstinence Teacher. Anyone who gets carried away receives prompt correction. In 1997’s The Wishbones, when a musician named Dave is possessed by longing for his lover, Gretchen, his desire is characterized as “a low-grade fever, a physical truth, the news his blood kept bringing him as it sloshed around his body.” That last clause is very Perrotta: a risky moment of dilation, a small iambic surge in the pulse of the line, expertly choked off with the comedy verb “sloshed.”

“I’m from a working-class background,” Perrotta says cheerfully when we meet in Harvard Square for lunch at Shay’s Pub. “The high style . . . I guess I kind of had that stuff beaten out of me.” Behind us a busker warbles through a strange, anesthetized version of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”: “I’ve bin to Hah-ly-wood . . . I’ve bin to mumble-mumble.” “Interesting take,” says Perrotta, dryly.

Culture warrior
Perrotta, who lives in Belmont, is a compact, friendly man in his mid 40s, with the kind of palely penetrating eyes one associates with movie assassins from the ’80s. I could see him in cold pursuit of Tom Cruise, for example, jolting the great Scientologist into one of those famous piston-legged runs.

He first broke the crust of authorial anonymity when his unpublished novel Election was optioned and then turned into a good, caustic 1999 movie by director Alexander Payne. On the back of this heightened interest, the book finally saw daylight, but the movie, as Perrotta admits, was the thing. “When the book came out, it was barely reviewed. . . . When the movie came out, it was a cultural event. People talked about it. I still hear Hillary Clinton getting compared to Tracy Flick.” Flick is the ruthless, sexually charged teenage busybody (played by Reese Witherspoon, in a career-making role) whose campaign for high-school president is the comic engine of the book: her instant cultural currency was Perrotta’s first bull’s-eye.

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