FICTION: Tom Perrotta returns to short fiction for the first time in nearly two decades.
While publishing six novels and seeing two of them (“Election” and “Little Children”) adapted into successful films, Tom Perrotta has made a brand of his ability to discern and dramatize compelling truths about people and places that others may regard as mundane.
He writes about the suburbs and the middle class. He writes about couples, families, neighbors, and co-workers. He understands this territory, and he works it well. “Nine Inches” (St. Martin’s Press, 246 pages, $25.99), his new collection of short stories, delivers more tales of teachers and teenagers, of young parents and middle-aged divorcees, of ball fields and school hallways.
In the title story, middle-school teachers Ethan and Charlotte, who were once friends and nearly more, must chaperon a dance together. The situation isn’t entirely comfortable, but having left a meltdown-prone toddler and stressed-out spouse at home, Ethan is surprised by the contagious joy of the dancing teens, which Perrotta describes with his typical simplicity and accuracy.
“You could see it in their hips and shoulders, their flailing arms and goofy faces, the pleasure they took in the music and their bodies, the conviction that they occupied the absolute center of a benign universe, the certainty that there was no place else to be but right here, right now,” he writes.
At the dance, Ethan and Charlotte reconnect and, eventually, rehash their decision to remain just friends. Back then she’d been on the verge of a separation and he’d been confused by her mixed signals. Now her marriage has failed for good, and his is tiring and tense. They’ve missed each other, and they’re at ease together. The question is, will they or won’t they?
Stakes are similar in “Kiddie Pool,” which begins with an unpromising scenario: a retired man named Gus sneaking into his recently deceased neighbor’s garage in search of an air compressor. But as Perrotta reveals the history of a suburban feud, Gus’ plan takes on import, and when Gus finds a Polaroid picture of his wife among the dead man’s things, he confronts this question: Did they or didn’t they?
Characters at the center of other Perrotta stories include a high school football star whose post-concussion symptoms force him out of the sport, a teacher who confronts a student over a negative comment on a rate-my-teacher website, and an empty-nester pushed to her limits by a son who has moved across the country and made himself rich as a plastic surgeon but can’t clear his schedule for a short trip home.
As in his novels, Perrotta tackles issues percolating in popular culture, and in even the lesser stories here, his writing is funny, thoughtful and highly readable.
Nick Healy is the author of the story collection “It Takes You Over.” He lives in Mankato.