The Oeuvre of Tom Perrotta

OK, it’s still August. It’s hot outside, the city is deserted, and my summer beach vacation is still over a week away. So I am still entitled to write about beach reads, right? We’ll get to the serious stuff after Labor Day, when the leaves start turning and I stop making gazpacho for dinner.

Which brings me to… Tom Perrotta. His books are not fluff, yet they aren’t really serious literature either. I put them in the Screenplay Book category: while you’re reading one of his books, you can envision it as a movie, from the cast and the sets to the music on the soundtrack. They’re astute, dead-on accurate at times, perfectly paced, and most of all, enjoyable to read. Tom Perrotta is the kind of person I’d love to go have a beer with to talk about life, writing, and 80s music — in an interview, he once admitted to having a recurring dream that he is the person Bruce Springsteen pulls up on stage instead of Courteney Cox, but to play guitar with him instead of dancing. Definitely my kind of guy.

Perrotta may be best known for writing Election, which was adapted into a 1999 movie with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick (and which was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar that year).  I’ve never read Election, but I wish I had — the movie was great, and I wish I had had the experience of reading the novel before I saw it.  The book is about an intensely fought battle for school government president at a New Jersey high school. It explores the tortuous experience of adolescence and high school while also offering biting commentary on image-obsessed, dirty-tricks-laden electoral politics.

Perrotta’s first novel, The Wishbones, is the story of a New Jersey 30-something who lives at home and plays in a wedding band. It was described by someone on Amazon as “a must read for anyone who came of age in the 80s.” I did read this one, and enjoyed it, especially the musical and pop culture references.  I also read Joe College, his third novel, about a blue-collar kid who ends up at Yale. It’s probably my least favorite of the Perrotta novels I’ve read, although Entertainment Weekly gave it an A- and had this to say about it:

The author of the novel Election has graduated from a suburban high school and gone to college — Yale, class of 1983 — and so has his working-class hero Danny. Though the plot contains little drama not found in an episode of 90210 (multiple love triangles, Mafia henchmen, drunken parties), Joe’s readers will revel in Perrotta’s gift for the telling detail. With Danny’s flashback to a battle of the bands, his hilarious, ecstatic dance to ”Pump It Up,” and an account of the highlighting strategies of undergrads, Perrotta transforms ’80s nostalgia into art.

My favorite Tom Perrotta book, though, is Little Children. I am sure that’s no coincidence, given that I read the book — which is about marriage, suburbia, middle-age, and the isolation of raising young children — shortly after becoming a mother. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote:

This soccer-mom “Bovary,” like the original, grasps the fundamental sadness of characters trapped in middle-class stability and yearning for adventures gone by. But Mr. Perrotta is too generous a writer to trivialize that. What distinguishes ”Little Children” from run-of-the-mill suburban satire is its knowing blend of slyness and compassion.

Here is another New York Times review of Little Children, and another from

Little Children has stayed with me far longer after reading it than his earlier books, and not just because I read it more recently. Its themes are more universal and its characters more dimensional than those in his other books. I can’t wait for the movie.

P.S. If you’re interested, here’s a 20-question interview with Tom Perrotta.  Good answers about how he constructs his novels, what he thinks of critics, etc.

P.P.S. Perrotta also has a book of short stories that I’ve had my eye on for a long time: Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies — “ten tales covering a period from the fall of 1969 to the summer of 1980, that follow the revelations of his narrator, Buddy, from his days as an eight-year-old Cub Scout through his return home from the first year of college.” (