Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: "Nine Inches" by Tom Perrotta

My hope is, with the new HBO series The Leftovers in full swing as I write this, that an even larger number of people flock to the great suburban novels of Tom Perrotta, a writer whose omniscience in Hollywood, with extremely popular adaptions made of his novels Election and Little Children, is only outshined by a lack of a hardcore fan base. I feel that it is the great burden of some writers who are popular with many movie adaptions made of their work (Dennis Lehane is my #1 example) somehow don’t get the critical attention that other popular, yet cult, authors such as Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin get. I have strong opinions on that, but that isn’t what this review is about. I just read Perrotta’s most recent book, and his first collection of short stories in nearly 20 years, Nine Inches, and I feel it is easily his best work to date. In Perrotta’s great novels, which for me are a toss up between Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher, there is always a great moral reveal somewhere in the book that leaves the reader breathless. But in the short story form, Perrotta does that to the reader almost every 20 pages, with each story carrying the wait and importance of a novel. A key trademark of his is on display quite prominently in each of the stories. He is an expert at creating characters with overall situations that force them to make a life-changing choice. They all seem to be on the knife-edge of an ambiguous chance at happiness or a dark infinite abyss. All of the stories are excellent, with only one being of lower quality, mainly because it has the hallmarks of being an excised section of The Leftovers. The first story, “Backrub” floored me, telling a tale of a recent high school grad who has to work as a pizza delivery man since he had the great misfortune of not getting accepted into any of the colleges he applied to. He has a few run-ins with a creepy older cop, which coincides with him coming to term with his mistakes. It is a quiet, yet grand fable about personal responsibility. “Grade My Teacher,” is also great, telling a story about a lonely teacher who targets a student who wrote a bad review of her online. It is a cute story, until it has one of the saddest endings I have ever read. “The Smile on Happy Chang's Face is probably Perrotta’s most daring story, about a little league umpire how channels his rage about his gay son into a skilled female pitcher. What could have been an overly political story turns out to be a complex and moving one, asking us as readers to empathize with a type of person we have learned to hate. The final story, “The All-Night Party,” is the best way to end the collection, about an over-burdened single mom working a prom-like school dance. It ends with a heartfelt passage about life’s potential and the possibility of anything. If you haven’t read any of Perrotta’s books, this is a good place to start, there are very few like him.

Rating: 5/5

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