Thursday, January 19, 2006

Suburban Swift

Little Children, by Tom Perrotta, Read by George Wilson, Recorded Books, LLC, 2004

One needn’t be a cultural critic or a detective to notice the great American Suburban Boogieman obsession. One week’s worth of Oprah or Law & Order or the 11:30 news is all it takes. No, I’m not talking about serial killers, though surely there is an undercurrent of that rippling through this.

American parents (moms most especially) are deeply, deeply afraid of pedophiles. One might even say obsessed. We ourselves, at Chez Critique, regularly receive updates from the county sheriff’s department giving us the addresses, crimes, and even photos of registered sex offenders within a mile from our house. I can’t in all honesty say that the fear is unwarranted, as there are few things that might befall your child that you dread more, but it does seem to be a fear whose cultural saturation and amplified denouncement is several degrees above our fear of other offenders. Several degrees higher in relation to the crime.

Tom Perrotta, whose deliciously satirical novel Election was made into an even tastier, nastier film, here in Little Children sets his sights on younger new parents as they traverse becoming adults while at the same time raising healthy, happy children. Throw into this mix a social climbing mother obsessed with structure, a husband with a serious porn addiction, infidelity, and a band of local cops football team that regularly gets its ass kicked by accountants and you’ve got a funny novel. Add into the mix the release of convicted child molester and the novel electrifies the exact societal pressure mores Perrotta is aiming at.

As a recent inhabitant of suburban parenthood, I can state unequivocally that Perrotta’s zingers are dead on target consistently, painfully, hysterically consistently. This is the kind of book where I winced with recognition both of certain types I’d noticed and at behaviors of my own. It is a rare and brave thing for a grown man to admit he rather likes Raffi; I too have suddenly found myself inexplicably enjoying singing along to the corniest of children’s music. (Full confession: I know the lyrics to no less than twenty songs about Strawberry Shortcake well enough to perform at any given moment.)

At the same point, I heard many of my own thoughts and feelings about sex offenders echoed in ugly ways by some of the uglier characters, and I recoiled. Recoiled from the very urges and sentiments I am aware of in myself when voiced by someone else. And then recoiled once more when a character I sympathized with spoke the words of tolerance I started to think in objection to my own earlier revulsion. Perrotta has a remarkable gift for getting rather quickly to the nub of things and for compromising you. It was the same neat trick he accomplished in Election in which you root for the teacher, only to realize too late just what a vicious thing it is you’re rooting for.

The novel’s main focus is the budding affair between the characters of stay-at-home dad Todd, an ex-jock who all the young moms at one playground have a crush on (they nickname him “The Prom King”), and Sarah, the married bisexual feminist whose older husband delights more in Internet sex and panty sniffing than his marriage. When their relationship is in its early stages, this gives Perrotta wide open spaces to pick and choose his targets. The increasing seriousness and intimacy tightens the focus, which hurts the novel a little. Once we leave these two clearly doomed from the beginning lovers for the greater world around them, the novel gets back its mojo.

Which is not to say any moment of Little Children is less than completely enjoyable. Perrotta writes about big themes and important parts of people’s lives, but he does it with an ease and a blackness of humor that makes it all so much fun.

The greater world of the story tends to focus on the children of many families, but one son in particular. Ronald James McGorvey, the pedophile who lives with and off of his mother, who has moved back into town. His taking up residence sends shockwaves through the town, as in the scene during a summer heatwave when he visits the town pool Parents rush to jerk their offspring bodily out of the water as McGorvey snorkels his way across the water. A particular hatred for McGorvey is shown by Larry, a blustery cop who first drafts Todd onto the police football team, then onto his neighborhood watch program, and finally into his alcohol fueled, increasingly violent harassment of McGorvey.

The plot moves with the kind of tragic inevitability that never quite ends in destruction, while its climax is both pulse-pounding in its buildup then rather mundane in its conclusion, as things so often are in real-life as opposed to fictional triangle plot development arcs. Perrotta even manages to slide in one last razor keen, almost throw-away line of dialogue that completely alters everything.

Perrotta’s style, like Dan Chaon’s, is the pregnant narrative pause. In the midst of scenes, he backtracks in time to relate some back story or piece of information pertinent to the moment at hand. This was rather obviously and literally used in the film version of Election in which pauses froze the screen to allow for some backtracking. It is his one rather obvious authorial device, but he manages it carefully enough so as not to grate or become too knee jerk.

His real strength lies in his almost perfect psychological portraits in miniature. There is a more than amusing aside in the chapter about Sarah’s husband Richard and his addiction to pornography and mail order panties. Always the businessman, after his initial elation at the underwear, he finds himself distracted by commercial considerations, certain the panties can’t have been worn by the woman on the website. There aren’t enough hours in the day for her to meet demand, especially if she wears one pair all day. Richard becomes sickly uncertain, almost convinced that the actual panty-wearing is outsourced to sweatshop workers.

In Todd’s rationalizations of the affair, Perrotta nails a self-satisfied self-loathing, an attraction-compulsion to the bad thing. He likewise has a delicate but apt touch in his delving into Sarah’s self-consciousness of her physical shortcomings, how it is reflected throughout her personality. The denials McGorvey’s mother tortures her mind through show how love can delude us while part of our mind still can’t help but know the worst.

My favorite little piece of funny psychological wisdom Perrotta nails down is his depiction of the cop Larry and his ex-wife as they argue and bluster in their loud declarations of their contradictory hedonism and righteousness.

“They considered themselves to be good Catholics in some rock-bottom immutable way that had less to do with religious practice than cultural identity. They were Catholics like they were Americans. It was their birthright, a form of citizenship their parents had passed on to them and that they would pass on to their children, regardless of whether they toed the Vatican line on morally fraught issues like abortion and wet t-shirt contests.” And he describes Larry’s ex in her glory: “who as usual had dressed for church as though dirty dancing were the eighth sacrament: short skirt, sheer black hose, tottery high heels and a tight red top that made it quite clear why she once had been a plausible contender for the title of Miss Nipples.”

It is little tidbits like that that establish Perrotta’s bona fides. He is America's bad conscience on the page. He sees through what people say to what they are — and documents it all with a biting wit.

Reader George Wilson is almost entirely forgettable, his reading an act of near transparent effacement. In an almost perfect manner, his reading practically stands aside and lets Perrotta’s novel shine through. That’s kind of a miracle all its own.

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