Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Eleanor Rigby in Prose: a Review of "Nine Inches" by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin's Press - 2013)

Okay, let’s deal with the title first. It’s the title of one of ten short stories in a collection. On the cover it is used for a naughty pun, but in the story it is the distance Jr. High couples are to keep between themselves during a school dance. Every story in the book is about the distance between people, every story in the book is about loneliness in one way or another.

Perrotta uses both first and third person forms, but each story focuses on a someone who feels separated from the world, by circumstances beyond control (for example, an head injury that rips a high school player off the football team) and some circumstances foolishly chosen (adultery makes more than one appearance.)

Though I enjoyed parts of Perrotta’s last couple of novels (“The Abstinence Teacher” and “The Leftovers”) and I appreciated his bold attempts to deal with religion in our culture, the tone and substance always seemed off to me (an Evangelical Christian.) With the exception of “The Chosen Girl” (a fine, sad piece) this collection eschews religion and focuses back on the suburbia that he has covered so well in “Joe College”, “Election” and “Little Children”.

Perhaps what I love most about Perrotta is his willingness to dive into the world of adolescence, from the perspective of parents, teachers and, of course, young people as well (capturing the voice of youth quite well for someone who’s getting up there… he’s 52 at publication date, a couple of months older than me.)

Sex (occasionally with a bit of graphic detail) is often an aspect of these tales, but rarely does it bring people together. There are also scattered outbursts of violence from characters whose frustration, boredom or impotence seeks an outlet, but nothing brutal enough to move the book to the Mystery or Crime fiction section of the bookstore.
Ultimately, several of the stories do migrate to glimpse of hope that come when someone remembers the good that can be done with a kind word or a tender touch.

Oh, and I haven’t mentioned that as always, Perrotta is funny. Don’t expect Comedy Central, but I did laugh out loud at times. Though you might be just as likely to fine yourself a little teary eyed.

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