(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran APR 23, 2004)
Do you remember that Talking Heads song, “Road to Nowhere?” It went:
Well we know where we’re goin’
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowin’
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
I don’t know if this is what Tom Perrotta had in mind when he wrote his latest novel, Little Children, but it certainly comes close to what he accomplished. The characters seem to be confident, normal adults but scratch the surface and one finds they are definitely on the road to nowhere. In his earlier works, Election and Joe College, Perrotta skewered high school and university life so it seems logical that he would now move on to “real life” or what passes for reality in quiet Bellington somewhere on the East Coast. This darkly comic novel chronicles the frustrations a set of thirty-something parents find when trying to raise their children in post-modern suburbia.
We meet the startlingly familiar cast of characters where else, but on the playground. The women meet regularly to gossip and pass judgment on each other’s parenting skills. Who among us hasn’t known someone like the character Mary Ann, “a tiny, elaborately made-up woman who dressed in spandex workout clothes and drove an SUV the size of a UPS van…” Mary Ann is preparing for her son’s admission to Harvard. Of course, the boy is four, but never mind that. However, the main character, Sarah, finds herself bewildered by her inability to raise her three-year old daughter. Actually, Sarah finds herself bewildered by most things in life. She drifted through college finally settling on a major in Critical Gender Studies, which prepared her well for a career at Starbucks.
An adamant feminist, with the ambiguous sexuality to prove it, Sarah surprises herself by quickly marrying a middle aged man and in no time at all has no life and a whiny three-year old. Into her playground walks a stay-at-home-dad the other moms dub the Prom King. Real name, Todd, this devastatingly handsome dad is supposed to be preparing for the bar exam (which he’s already failed twice, don’t talk to him about JFK Jr. thank you very much) although he mainly spends his study time fascinated by the abilities of a group of adolescent skateboarders.
The quiet Bellington world is rocked by the reappearance of Ronnie McGorvey, recently released from prison after having exposed himself to a local Girl Scout. The community, of course, reacts with horror and Perrotta centers this rage and self-righteousness on the character of Larry Moon, a retired police officer who makes it his personal goal to torment McGorvey into leaving town. We also get a peek at Ronnie’s mother, who keeps trying to set him up on blind dates. Wouldn’t that be the date from hell?
All of Perrotta’s characters are skilled at avoiding adult life, in fact they’re all more adolescents than adults, resenting both authority figures and their children. Sarah and Todd the Prom King launch into an all-consuming affair and plan to run away together, regardless of the fact that neither has a paying job. They are both reliving their high school experiences, mousy Sarah finally hooking up with the star quarterback. Todd joins a late night touch football team, which allows him to spend even more time not preparing for the bar exam. Toward the end, both the sex and the football border on the gratuitous. Sarah’s husband, Richard becomes obsessed with an internet sex site. Of the pornography, Richard believes, “Part of him was a responsible adult who disapproved on moral grounds and understood quite clearly that the porn industry exploited and violated young women, and part of him…just thought it was incredibly cool to see pictures of naked ladies doing crazy stuff.”
Perrotta has produced a sharp funny look at the secret life of parents. It’s easy to experience the “ouch” of identification throughout Little Children, even if you’re not on the road to nowhere.
- Amazon readers rating: from 252 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies (1994)
- The Wishbones (1997)
- Election (1998)
- Joe College (2000)
- Little Children (2004)
- The Absinence Teacher (2007)
- The Leftovers (2011)
- Nine Inches: Stories (September 2013)
Movies from books:
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- Official website for Tom Perrotta
- New York State Writers Institute on Election, the movie
- Reading Group Guide for Little Children
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Leftovers
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About the Author:
Tom Perrotta grew up in New Jersey. He received his B.A. in English from Yale University and his M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. He has taught writing at Yale University and Harvard University.
Perrotta is a novelist and short story writer whose work explores the adolescent experience. His stories have been published in The Gettysburg Review, Epoch, Crazyhorse and Columbia: A Magazine of Poetry and Prose. Recently, his nonfiction work has been published in Rolling Stone and GQ.
His first publication, Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies (1994), is a collection of coming-of-age stories, which give insight into the joys and agonies of adolescence. Bad Haircut has been taught at Harvard University in both literature and history courses, as well as at colleges and schools around the nation, including Sarah Lawrence, Williams College, the West Side YMCA in New York City, St. Ann's School in Brooklyn and Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens. The Washington Post called Bad Haircut "more powerful than any other coming-of-age novel." It has been turned into a screenplay, and a pilot was filmed for a possible television series on the WB network.
He currently lives outside Boston in Belmont, Massachusetts.