Victor Luftig, a young professor of British modernism, cornered me and pointed at Tom Perrotta with his beer bottle: you see that guy? Tom? Tom Perrotta? He’s the real deal. He’s going to be big.
Victor was a nice guy. Not mysterious or cruel. I could usually understand everything he said. These were not signs of future promise at Yale in the 90s. Aware of my own niceness, I tried to keep my distance.
Tom was nice, too. He was the only College Writing Tutor who was in my extended circle of acquaintances. He seemed like a good guy. Someone you’d like to watch a game with. Someone Victor probably did watch games with.
Tom was not going far. Victor was not the one to predict who would.
Years later, I’m sitting in the basement in a neglected but grand campus building, working on one of five computers shared by the 40 of us who teach freshman writing at Harvard. Tom works there, too. He walks in with a new haircut and a black leather jacket. MTV is actually making his novel into a movie. I started to pay attention.
Now, he’s everywhere. I’m really happy for him. I thought Little Children was a good book, a smart book, And I remember loving Bad Haircut.
I suspect that Perrotta’s success comes out of his being a good guy and being a really smart guy: he never presented himself as someone out of the ordinary so he can write novels about ordinary people that aren’t condescending. This seems to me to get at the heart of some of the problems of literary fiction: in short, and to be totally bald about it, perhaps novelists often feel so alienated from the world that they end up writing about worlds which fail to reconnect with readers. This is more about class alienation than anything else. I’m tired of reading books about writers and teachers, books that seem to imagine writers and teachers as the only people whose inner lives are worthy of consideration. Even Virginia Woolf stretched to imagine the inner world of the wife of a Conservative MP. I keep thinking about Laila Lalami’s eloquent plea for more fiction about poor people and keep looking, looking, looking for examples. While Tom doesn’t do that, he isn’t writing about how hard it is to write a novel in Brooklyn…
So, I am proud to have known Tom and happy for him. His novels are really good--maybe he is our generation’s Jane Smiley or Richard Russo, writing really good, dependable books every other year and then, occasionally a great one, but pretty consistently capturing something about the zeitgeist.
They’re not the books that thrill me, however. That’s probably not surprising, given all the time I’ve spent reading British modernism. So it’s interesting to me to witness the little critical firestorm over the reviews he got last weekend.
Like Levi, I guess I would have been perfectly happy with the moniker “dependable” for Liesl Schillinger, who wrote the cover review for the New York Times. But why am I calling someone dependable whose review of the new DeLillo was so openly out of sync with his project? Hers wasn’t an informative, biting, or pleasurable bad review, just an anti-intellectual one. Still, like Carolyn, I would have felt a little intimidated to have my review up against hers--an inaccurate phrase, but that is how it must feel.
I was grateful, then, to Mark for taking the time to point out Schillinger’s inanities:
And perhaps this muddle makes sense to you but to us it's just, well, a muddle:Interesting, how the "strong silent type" line made Mark squirm with agony, made Carolyn wish she'd thought of it, and went right past me as a little lame and a little funny. In any case, kudos to Carolyn for her review in the LA Times. I liked this bit here:
Usually, when you ask yourself, “What would a Perrotta character do?” you know the answer: he’d do the familiar, guiltily compromised, self-interested thing that any normal guy would do ... and you understand him, even if you don’t applaud him.
Back to the Style section, if you please.
Tom Perrotta ("Little Children," "Election") brings this world to life with a few strokes. He never condescends to modern suburbia -- instead, he mucks around its corners, opens closets and reveals oddball secrets. It's a kind, gentle satire -- one that gives equal time to its villains and its heroes. The evangelical pastor, for instance, believes he's doing the right thing, even when he shows up uninvited on a parishioner's doorstep to shield him from sin.
It veers toward cliché, perhaps, but that’s a hazard in trying to describe this Perrotta world of ordinary suburbia.
Updated to add what you already know: that Laila liked it pretty well.