Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The hotness that is Tom Perrotta

Whenever I hear the words "the great American novel," I couldn't help but cringe at the thought of reading another one. How many great American novels should we be exposed too? I can't remember the last time I read a novel by Philip Roth and John Updike, who are, I have to agree, instutions of American literature in their own right. I've found their recent works too tedious and, for a lack of a more appropriate word, scholarly (i.e., long, boring, parochial).

Tom Perrotta, however, belongs to a different breed of American authors. Instead of focusing on a broad context that is the American landscape, Perrotta zeroes in on a place that seems quite uneventful -- the suburbs. I believe that the suburbs are truly American. It's where immigrants dream of living. It's our equivalent of the Filipino subdivision, where the upper middle class go on with their lives. In Perrotta's novels, he explores the dynamics of these upper middle class Americans in a way his readers can relate to. What seems a tranquil, clustered, and predominantly white neighborhood becomes the perfect setting to explore the very issues controversial today. While I haven't read all of this novels, I would like to recommend these three wonderful Perrotta novels.

Joe College, one of Perrotta's earlier works, is a first-person narrative of Danny, an incoming junior at Yale. Perrotta himself went to Yale, and his descriptions of life at Yale do come off as genuine. The issues presented in the novel may not as monumental as what's in his later works, but the nuances of the father-son relationship are given depth. Danny's father works his butt off just to send Danny to an Ivy League school, not knowing that his son has a few things his father wouldn't be proud of. First, Danny gets his hometown girlfriend pregnant. Second, Danny angers the local lunch truck mafia, putting his father's business in jeopardy.

I've read Little Children before the movie came out. The movie is faithful to the book though, but not reading Perrotta's novel deprives your senses of flawless characterizations. This novel is really about how people are ill-prepared to face the consequences of their decisions, and what happens when seemingly perfect lives are transformed because of these decisions. Sarah, a woman with a 3-year-old daughter living in a perfect house with the perfect husband, engages in an affair with Todd, who the women call Prom King. Todd has no reason to start an affair with Sarah; his wife's gorgeous and earns large sums of money, allowing him to stay at home and finish his law degree. The heart and soul of the novel though is the pedophile. He's everything that people living in suburbia aren't.

Perrotta's latest novel, The Abstinence Teacher, is also his finest and his funniest. Despite being set in the suburbs, it explores the controversial issue of sex education. The main character in the novel is Ruth, a sex education teacher who gets pulled out from teaching the subject because the school suddenly feels that it should promote abstinence instead. The novel is basically a satire of white, Protestant America; you can literally taste the hypocrisy of the characters. In The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta makes effective use of stereotypes in developing his story: the divorced mother who hasn't dated recently, the religious man who's struggling with his beliefs, the gay couple and their angst against unequal rights, the perky abstinence teacher hired by the school.


ike v said...

great reviews, Peter.
great blog!
keep them coming!

Peter Michael C. Sandico said...

Thanks, Ike!