Nine Inches

  • Tom Perrotta
  • St Martin's Press
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Gerry Hogan
  • September 23, 2013

In this 10-story collection, American suburban angst is given new depth and incisive insight.

For months I’d been reading novels set in distant times and foreign places; transported to unfamiliar settings, living with characters fighting for their lives against the elements or despotic regimes, I began wondering if our modern first-world inter- and intra-personal troubles were paltry, self-indulgent. Compared to crop failure and Nazi aggression, is 21st-century existential angst really worth the time it takes to read a short story? Then along comes Tom Perrotta with Nine Inches, a book of 10 stories, all set in present-day East Coast suburbia, in which (mostly) moral, educated, well-intentioned people make a hash of their lives because of fear, self-doubt and inertia, and I was forced to re-think my re-thinking. If nothing else, Perrotta’s stories illustrate that a good life — that human happiness — requires more than food on the table and the freedom to walk the streets.

As in his novels Election, Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta displays uncanny insight into contemporary American culture. More than half of the stories involve wounded high school teachers, parents and/or students, suggesting a belief that one’s luck and skill, or lack thereof, in navigating that perilous world can set character and determine the course of a life. In “Grade My Teacher” and “The All-Night Party,” divorced middle-aged women, one a math teacher, the other a mother and party chaperone, are plagued by insecurities borne of their placement in the high school caste system. Despite the passage of years, these women still envy and loathe the popular kids, those blessed with beauty, athletic prowess and entitlement, “about which the world only reminds them every day.”

Men and boys do little better in transcending their earlier selves. Ethan, the teacher in “Nine Inches,” tired of his real life with an emotionally taxed wife and demanding toddler, longs for the purity of teenage infatuation. In “One-Four-Five,” a pediatrician seeks refuge from a failed marriage in playing classic rock licks on an electric guitar, but in the end, “there was a faint current of dread running beneath his optimism, because good things turned to shit all the time, and you couldn’t always see it coming.” Though several protagonists, such as 60-something Gus in “Kiddie Pool,“have unpleasant revelations that clarify their situation, this is not a collection hinging on Joycean epiphany — these folks have long comprehended that they hold a tenuous place in an unjust and unforgiving world. And, in fairness to the characters, some of them, like the smart-kid-who-loses-the-girl narrator of “The Test Taker,” are bold (or foolish) enough to commit small acts of rebellion, stones thrown at an advancing army.

This is an uneven collection. In a recent interview, Perotta revealed that many of these stories sprung from things his kids told him; indeed, in some of the more determined and less successful offerings, like “Backrub,” where a bad moment at the computer leads to a life of crime, it feels like he is trying too hard to link ideas to events. I got a very different sense from the best and most moving story, “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” where a Little League umpire reveals himself over the span of a championship game. Here, Perrotta creates a fully rounded character whose actions, though complex and unexpected, make sense in the context of a troubled life.

As in all of his fiction, Perrotta’s prose is fluid and spare, yet full of telling detail. Though not exactly a minimalist in the tradition of Hemingway or Carver, he is plainly more concerned with storytelling — with truth telling — than with pretty words. And, as with all of his fine books, I came away from Nine Inches with emotion deepened, and with greater awareness of the pitfalls that could await.

Gerry Hogan lives in Columbia, Md., and is a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

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