Tom Perrotta's story collection, NINE INCHES, offers a series of urgent dispatches from America's suburbs delivered with the same wit and insight that have made his novels, LITTLE CHILDREN and THE LEFTOVERS, both popular and critical successes.
Anyone even casually acquainted with the work of writers like John Cheever, John Updike and Richard Yates will discover quickly that Perrotta's stories draw on familiar source material: infidelity, divorce and, most emphatically, his characters' persistent unease that, despite their comfortable surroundings, there is something essential missing from their lives. But Perrotta updates these classic themes with stories about the tensions of the college admission process, a confrontation at a Little League baseball game, and the perils of the Internet that lend a freshness to his work and will induce a shiver of recognition in his readers.
Not surprisingly for an author whose second novel, ELECTION, was a satire about a race for a high school presidency, several of the stories in NINE INCHES are set in and around secondary schools. In the title story, a middle school dance provides the arena for a misunderstanding between two teachers that is filled with sexual longing and regret, the mirror image of two students violating the mandatory slow dance separation distance, dancing "as if the two of them were the only people who mattered in the world, as if they had no one to answer to but themselves."
"In the 10 crisp stories of NINE INCHES, Tom Perrotta succeeds in holding a mirror up to so many aspects of contemporary life that few of us will be able to deny seeing ourselves in at least some corner of its reflection."
A similar angst dogs divorcee Liz Mercatto, the protagonist of "The All-Night Party." She's been “suckered into taking the graveyard shift” at her daughter’s prom, where she recognizes that she "resented her daughter for getting everything all at once, for being so pretty and happy and lucky, skiing all day and then slipping under the warm covers with her ridiculously cute, totally adoring boyfriend." Clay Murphy, a football player permanently sidelined by a concussion, narrates "Senior Season," a story that captures the devastation experienced by one young man when he's forcibly separated from the game that gives meaning to his life. "A year from now, I tell myself, none of what I'm feeling right now will even matter," but we understand how his loss will shadow him forever.
Two stories center on the college admission process, one that's unquestionably a modern upper-middle-class anxiety-inducing rite of passage. "Backrub" traverses the short distance that separates honor student Donald, who "would've cut my arm off if U.S. News & World Report had mentioned that selective colleges were looking for amputees," from his inexplicable failure to gain acceptance at even a single safety school to his work as a pizza delivery man and a too-close relationship with his drug-addled boss. In "The Test-Taker," Josh makes a fateful decision as he tries to salvage a small bit of moral dignity after accidentally learning the identity of the student he's impersonating in taking the SAT test in exchange for $500.
Perrotta offers another pair of stories that feel like they draw their inspiration from today’s newspaper. Jack, the Little League umpire who narrates "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face" and who "felt clearheaded and almost serene, free of the bitterness and shame that were the constant companions during the rest of my life," only when he’s calling balls and strikes, tells the story of a beanball incident at a Little League game that brings him to an epiphany about his troubled relationship with his own son. "Grade My Teacher" is a brief portrait of the seductiveness of the Internet’s anonymity and one teacher's creative response to an unfavorable student rating.
But the story that brings Perrotta closest to Cheever and Updike territory is "Kiddie Pool." In it, Gus Ketchell makes a startling discovery in the aftermath of a long-running war with his deceased next-door neighbor. In fewer than 20 pages, Perrotta touches on an assortment of themes --- male friendship, infidelity, aging and the poignancy of lost chances --- that give the story true moral heft. On the story's penultimate page, Gus movingly confronts a disconcerting truth: "What really bothered him was that he could have spent so much time on earth --- he was sixty-eight years old, for God's sake --- and understood almost nothing about his own life and the lives of the people he was closest to."
In the 10 crisp stories of NINE INCHES, Tom Perrotta succeeds in holding a mirror up to so many aspects of contemporary life that few of us will be able to deny seeing ourselves in at least some corner of its reflection.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 13, 2013