Thursday, March 24, 2005

Book #9: Little Children by Tom Perrotta

I was inspired to read this by a stellar High Hat review written by John James in the fourth issue. Side note: the new issue will be online within a few days.

I've never read any other books by Perrotta, but he's the author of Election (both the book and the screenplay). I liked that movie ok at the time but when I think on it now, it leaves an ugly taste in my mouth. The characters are uniformly flat, petty, id-driven sociopaths, which succeeds as satire because it describes everyone I know. Wait! Actually, that describes no one I know, even the downtrodden Middle-American schoolteachers. In fact, it seems almost like a world populated by entirely by strawmen and -women for the sole purpose of inviting the audience to think of themselves as intellectuals who can look down on people like this. Wacky! Satirical! Or not.

So, despite John's promise that this book was going to be great, I started it with some concern. The characters seemed ripe for exposure as the same sort of flat, petty, id-driven sociopaths as we saw in Election. A few chapters in, I almost quit, thinking I could see the plot telegraphed in advance. However, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Rather than going for the easy and stupid plot developments I thought I was sensing, Perrotta chose to allow the story to unfold at its own pace without any clear-cut villains or heroes. As John pointed out in his review, all of the characters have facets and it's clear that Perrotta feels some sympathy or empathy with each. The two main characters, Sarah and Todd, seem the most capable of turning into Election-style monsters throughout the narrative, but Perrotta pulls the rug out in the final chapters. Each is revealed to be not quite what we thought they were (or even what they thought they were), and neither are the child molester, the angry cop, the judgmental busybody housewife, or any of the other stock characters.

The final moment in the book, which I'm not going to describe in detail, caps a scene of excruciating tension where all of the characters are seemingly heading into self-destruction through heeding their worst impulses by providing some much-needed clarity and calm. The four characters involved are the least likely to be talking with one another at any given moment, and yet Perrotta has brought them together realistically for a conversation in which each finally understands each other and even (for the time being, at least) forgives each other for their transgressions.

That's what being an adult is about: rising above the pettiness. Perrotta's book starts with a threat of obnoxious condescension and ends on a soaring high note of compassion. Recommended.


JBJ 11:23 PM, March 27, 2005  

Glad you liked the book. At a point when I was feeling a little beaten down by toddler-parenthood, it gave me hope that drama and surprise and mystery in life are still possible.

Hayden Childs 3:49 PM, March 28, 2005  

I'm not quite there yet, but the book was a good call, anyway.

Joe 6:27 PM, April 11, 2005  

I didn't see Election because the characters, especially the Reese Witherspoon one, looked very one note. But someone gave me a copy of Joe College and I liked it so I picked up Election, too. It was really good. I was surprised at how much more three-dimensional Tracy Flick was in the book than she was in my preconception based on the movie's trailer. I know you have a full schedule between work, The High Hat, your reading project, and music -- oh yeah, Lil' Jandek probably takes some time, too, but Election is worth a read if you ever find the time.

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