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.
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He first broke the crust of authorial anonymity when his unpublished novel Election was optioned and then turned into a good, caustic 1999 movie by director Alexander Payne.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.
His second was 2004’s Little Children, later turned into a movie for which Perrotta’s screenplay (co-written with Todd Field) received an Oscar nomination. The children of the title are not the suburban toddlers whose playgrounds and swimming pools provide the setting for half the book’s action, but rather their parents: the shifty, immature adults who fantasize about one another across the swing set while shrieking preschoolers move between them like pendulums.
“Early on,” says Perrotta, “the people who read it were my natural readers, who knew what to expect maybe from my other work, but were also comfortable with some of the stuff I was dealing with. Then, because it did well, it reached this whole other audience that I’d never had before — much more mainstream, including people from the middle of the country who were Christians. And you can actually track it as you go through the Amazon reviews: the early ones are just ecstatic, and then gradually this kind of angry, uncomprehending note takes over: ‘Why did I read this? The guy who leaves his wife for a prom queen, these people who are having affairs while their kids are napping. Why do I have to read about these people? They’re so depressing, they’re so stupid, so miserable, they’re all immoral.’ ”
Which brings us to The Abstinence Teacher, his latest, to be published on October 18 by St. Martin’s Press. The book is set in a place called Stonewood Heights, somewhere in New England, where sex-ed teacher Ruth Ramsey is having a bit of a run-in with the forces of religious reaction. Challenged by a fastidious student to defend the sordid practice known as “oral sex,” Ruth introduces the difficult notion of pleasure. “Some people enjoy it,” she says. Oh dear. Now the entire school district is being sued for emotional besmirchment and un-categorizable offenses against the teenage mind, and Ruth’s job is on the line. An organization called Wise Choices for Teens is patrolling the hallways. The administrative body is cowed. And when Ruth hears her daughter’s soccer coach gathering his team for a victory prayer to the Lord, she flips. Hoist the banners of the culture war!