Tom Perrotta finds treasure in suburbia in ‘Nine Inches’

Nine Inches.  Tom Perrotta. St. Martin's Press. 246 pages. $25.99.
Nine Inches. Tom Perrotta. St. Martin's Press. 246 pages. $25.99.

The adults are difficult to distinguish from the kids in Tom Perrotta’s entertaining new story collection. Age aside, what separates the poor decisions of the unhappy teen in Backrub who delivers pot with the pizza from those of the restless, married chaperone in Nine Inches eyeing a co-worker at a middle-school dance?

The longings of the disgraced Little League umpire in The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face mirror the yearnings of the football player whose injury has sidelined him in Senior Seaso n: Both want to undo what was done. The senior of The Test-Taker, who gets paid to take SATs for other students, wants revenge as badly as the husband in Kiddie Pool, who gets a shock when he sneaks into his dead neighbor’s garage.

As he did in such hilarious, biting novels as The Leftovers, Little Children and Election, Perrotta turns his satiric gaze on suburbia and unearths gem after gem about modern life. He revels in the ordinary, crossing generational lines with ease and chronicling the humiliating behavior, petty insecurities and surprisingly poignant regrets that plague us all.

Perrotta can be funny — “[T]hey were ambitious even when they danced,” thinks a teacher about his privileged students, who are already “dogged little achievers” at 12 and 13 — but he also has a heart. He wryly points out the truth: If we only paid attention to each other, we might recognize and appreciate what we have in common.

Throughout Nine Inches — the distance young dancers are required to keep between them during slow songs — most characters share the helpless feelings of the insecure Vicki in Grade My Teacher, reeling over what an angry student has posted on a website (“OMG my math teacher Vicki Wiggins is an INSANE B*@&! One day she called me a FAT PIG for eating candy in class”).

Vicki, who recalls a much different incident, feels victimized: “ I have so much to offer. And no one even notices.” She’s right. But the same is true of the student, which Vicki realizes when she takes the time to connect.

I have so much to offer. That refrain could come from the foolish, lonely grandmother in The Chosen Girl or the foolish, unfaithful pediatrician in One Four Five. The first seeks comfort in a mysterious little girl from a peculiar religious group, the other in playing the blues even as he’s living them. “It was a tough world out there, and you were a fool to reveal your weakness,” he knows. And yet, in a rare act of courage, he takes a chance anyway. See? Perrotta’s not merely taking shots at suburban malaise. He’s showing us the way out.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.

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