Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

There goes the neighbourhood

Excellent short stories go behind the white picket fence of suburbia

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American novelist Tom Perrotta's first collection of short stories holds up a mirror to almost any suburban neighbourhood in North America. People may have different names or different jobs, but our hopes and fears -- as well as our eagerness to judge each other -- are universal.

Perrotta was raised in New Jersey and now lives in Boston. He is the author of eight novels, including Election (1998) and Little Children (2004), both of which were made into critically lauded movies. His last novel, The Leftovers, about a rapture-like event and how it affects one small town, was published in 2011.

Perrotta novels are known for their unpredictable, edgy content and often morally ambiguous characters. The 12 stories in Nine Inches do not disappoint.

Behind the white picket fence and two-car garage, there is plenty of dysfunction in Perrotta's fictional world -- mothers are jealous of their teenage daughters' popularity, high school teachers are wracked with insecurity about what their students really think of them, losers don't get the girl and don't even realize they want her until it's too late. And if married couples aren't already cheating, they're certainly thinking about it.

There's also no shortage of teenage girls with cleavage in skimpy denim shorts, and not just in the stories narrated by adolescent boys. Fortunately, Perrotta's otherwise exceptional writing mostly overshadows his near lapse into classic male fantasy mode, and you can't help but be drawn into his seedy suburbia.

Jack, the disgruntled, divorced narrator of The Smile on Happy Chang's Face, is a backward boor who can't handle his son's interest in musical theatre and sees "something undeniably sexual" about the presence of Little League pitcher Lori on the baseball field.

Repulsive as Jack is, Perrotta deftly turns the tables so that by the end, Jack is exposed as merely a horribly confused, defeated man, unable to apologize, still trying to explain:

"That's what I wanted my ex-wife and children to see," he says, "a man who had the courage to admit that he'd failed, who understood that there were times when you had no right to judge."

The provocatively named title story may give you pause but it is not what you think. In it, chaperones at a middle school dance are tasked with ensuring that students keep at least nine inches between each other when dancing.

The main character ends up having to separate two love-struck students, which leaves him feeling like a fool.

It calls to mind a story by John Updike in which three teenage hotties walk into the local grocery store wearing only bathing suits. When the manager asks them to leave, the bag boy narrating the story is quietly outraged and quits on the spot.

Throughout these stories, Perrotta subtly draws our attention to the cookie-cutter nature of suburbia. The ever-present Starbucks coffee outlet features in several stories, just as you're likely to find one in almost every real-life neighbourhood.

Perrotta even recycles the names of characters -- two Amandas, a few Caseys -- and places, both real and fictional -- further blurring the line between reality and fiction and perhaps hinting that we may share other, less innocuous traits with these characters.

In Kiddie Pool, Gus comes to the sad realization that "he could have spent so much time on earth... and understood almost nothing about his own life and the lives of the people he was closest to."

Maybe that's all Perrotta is saying: that we aren't so predictable, after all.

Lindsay McKnight, who grew up in suburbia, works in the arts in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 A1

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