Middle Men: Stories

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The Danger in Cohesion: Tom Perrotta’s Nine Inches

Tom Perrotta occupies a rare and privileged place in American letters: the literary writer with popular appeal. He writes serious, thoughtful realism, but his stories have mass appeal: his novels Election and Little Children have both become Academy Award-nominated films, the film version of The Abstinence Teacher is in production, and The Leftovers has recently been picked up as an HBO series. Nine Inches is Perrotta’s first book of short stories since 1994’s Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, and it is being publicized as his first true short story collection (the stories of Bad Haircut are all linked by the same protagonist, making it something of a novel-in-stories). The dark suburban tales of Nine Inches are compelling and likely to appeal even to many Americans with no special interest in the short story, a form that has notoriously become the province of the ivory tower. But taken as a collection, Nine Inches reveals a fatal flaw that undermines the skilled artistry: Perrotta’s heavy hand.

Perrotta’s strengths as a writer are clear, and they are remarkable: narrative efficiency and unity of vision. Perrotta’s narrators tell the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it. Details, whether internal or external, serve the development of character motivations and narrative tension. Nothing is wasted on, say, removed rumination or subtle texturizing. Our subject is always clear: these people in these places, with these problems, inevitably driven toward these game-changing epiphanies. Nowhere is this clearer than in Perrotta’s tightly-constructed opening sentences: “The Superior Wallcoverings Wildcats were playing in the Little League championship game, and I wanted them to lose”; “Ethan didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, but the vice principal twisted his arm”; “In the turbulent, lonely months that followed the collapse of his marriage, Dr. Rick Sims became obsessed with the blues.” Instantly, we have the narrative skeleton: character, conflict, and — perhaps just as essentially for Perrotta’s way of storytelling — the quirk. Passion inspired by a Little league game, coercion into middle school dance attendance, a divorced doctor taking up the blues: there’s a taste of the intriguing in the ordinary, inviting us to watch the drama unfold.

As for unity of vision: first of all, Perrotta’s standard setting is no secret. In fact, it’s his calling card. The blurbs on the back of Nine Inches proclaim it: Perrotta is, according to Time, the “Steinbeck of suburbia,” while USA Today has called him an “astute student of twenty-first-century suburban life.” It is no surprise, then, that Nine Inches’ milieus are without exception suburban, while its concerns are affluent, white, suburban concerns. These concerns frame and underscore the collection’s coherent existential outlook: cynical, exhausted, and oppressed.

As a theme, marital strife dominates. In fact, every one of the marriages at the stories’ forefront is plagued by divorce, adultery, or a medley of the two. Two stories deal with the college application grind: one from the perspective of a good student who ended up somehow rejected from even his “safeties,” the other with a professional SAT-taker. The stories inhabit the same psychic as well as socioeconomic space: they could conceivably take place in the same area code. In fact, they read like various inflections on the same attitude. Life is unfair, this attitude holds. Hard work, good intentions, and a sensitive soul go unrewarded. Institutions will inevitably betray you. And life’s sweetest, most profound moments are to be snatched lustily and illicitly, like the nerd’s revenge in “The Test-Taker” and the adulterous kiss in the title story.

And here we begin to see how Perrotta’s strengths collapse into a flaw. This thematic, geographic, and socioeconomic coherence is what Nine Inches stands on to give it the look of a proper collection, and it is what lets us hear Perrotta’s voice as a voice. It is this unity that earned Nine Inches a comparison to James Joyce’s Dubliners in The Boston Globe. But this well-intentioned coherence also betrays Perrotta’s authenticity as an artist in revealing his heavy hand. Perrotta’s voice, as manifest in these stories, is neither dynamic nor complex. Rather, it is resolute, heavy, and oppressive. It lacks nuance. The comparison to Dubliners turns out to be superficial and lazy; while Joyce’s masterwork illuminates the complexities of human life through its distinctive milieu and voice, Perrotta’s collection elides subtleties in favor of unquestioned certainty: this is how stories work; this is what life is like.

This flaw only becomes clear as the collection unfolds. Though some stories are stronger than others, each piece taken on its own is far more compelling than the collection as a whole. “The Test-Taker,” which I had the pleasure of hearing Perrotta read at an event this past summer, is clever in concept and darkly convincing in execution as it unveils the seemingly cosmically tragic interactions of aspirational high schoolers. But read as the penultimate story in the collection, the perspective and the narrative devices employed to convey it have become monotonous. Nine Inches ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The stories begin to fade from their superficial distinctions into a drone. At times it seems that a new story will offer a truly unique perspective, as in “The Chosen Girl,” which leaves the settings of high school and troubled marriage to consider the difficulties of having one’s son grow up and grow distant. But these rare moments become lost in the flood of sameness. By the collection’s end, the reader is struck by the sense that, however strong Perrotta’s eye for narrative structure, the content of the vision is not only unified, but bleakly unvaried and simple.

Amidst the book’s too-coherent vision, each story’s structure begins to seem too intentional, too pointed, too constructed. The seams start to show. Perrotta is an efficient writer. Perrotta, as Aristotle said of nature, does nothing in vain. But as the collection’s outlook grows increasingly tiring, Perrotta’s tricks start to seem more like tricks. An attentive reader can reliably predict when a flashback is coming, when a scene is going to fade into character exposition, and of what the climax will consist. This is not to say that Perrotta ought to be an experimentalist (which he certainly is not), or that there is anything inherently wrong in sticking to tried and true narrative structures and strategies. But without a rich breadth of perspective, the artistic architecture is bound to start showing. Perrotta would do well to loosen his grip, and to reconsider the way his own attitude overpowers his characters’. He could take a cue from classic collections like Dubliners or Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, or even Jim Gavin’s recent and masterful Middle Men, and see that stories need not be univocal for a collection to be coherent: better that they harmonize instead.

Ordinary People: Jim Gavin’s Middle Men

1.
“Play the Man,” the first story in Jim Gavin’s superb debut collection, Middle Men, opens with a recounting of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp:
The Romans had a hard time killing Polycarp . . . .[S]urrounded by bloodthirsty pagans, he heard a voice. “Be strong, Polycarp . . . and play the man.” [He] smiled calmly at his persecutors. They tried to set him on fire, but his flesh would not be consumed. They pierced his heart with a sword, but a dove issued from his chest. The afternoon dragged on like that, miracle after miracle . . .
Simply taken in the context of Gavin’s narrative, that tale explains the motto painted on the gym wall at the school where the story’s narrator, Pat Linehan, transfers after the basketball coach at his previous school says he wasn’t good enough to play there. But Gavin uses Polycarp’s martyrdom for more than mere surface detail.

In the legend, the sentence that gives Gavin’s story its title is a heavenly exhortation to the saint to stand firm by his principles. That meaning, however, eludes the boys in the story. Although the motto hovers in the background of every move they make on the court (where they are, it turns out, nearly inept), they can only think of it in terms of basketball defense. “[But] we play zone,” one of them objects.

There, in the story’s first few hundred words, Gavin lays out the central concern of his collection: the tension between the ordinary life and the extraordinary. All of Gavin’s protagonists are rooted in the former. Most have aspirations but, consistent with the fact that the characters are firmly earthbound, even those are dim.

Linehan has his eyes fixed on a basketball scholarship to a Division I college but when he voices his dream, he can’t bring himself to name places like Duke or North Carolina but invokes lesser programs: Fresno State, UC Santa Barbara.

The protagonist of “Elephant Doors,” a TV production assistant, wants fame as a stand-up comic but will be happy with the security of a five-year contract for the show, while the narrator of “Illuminati” is looking to reclaim the small glory he once attained when he sold a script to Hollywood for, by Tinsel Town standards, a pittance in five figures.

To make his characters’ ordinariness seem all the more so, Gavin contrasts them repeatedly with men who have gained true greatness. Linehan has Polycarp. In “Costello,” a plumbing salesman drives 50,000 miles a year but all on the Los Angeles interstates; at home, he reads about Ferdinand Magellan, inspiring him to think of the miles he accumulates as “circles of latitude.” In “Illuminati,” the failing screenwriter listens as two men relate a story they hope he’ll turn it into a screenplay. As they describe what is, in fact, a pale version of either “The Most Dangerous Game” or Predator, they sit beneath a painting of Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill, yet another reminder in the background of Gavin’s stories that, while his characters chase meager dreams, others actually did become larger than life.

2.
Despite a cast of such characters, Gavin’s collection is often comic. Individual sentences are laugh-out-loud funny: “I’m going to Cypress Junior College,” someone says in “Play the Man.” “My step-mom went there, so I’m a legacy.” In “Elephant Doors,” a man offers evidence of the glorious past of a film studio: “There’s a lot of rich history around here. Did you know this is the soundstage where they filmed Anaconda II: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid?”

Most of the humor, however, is situational.

In “The Luau,” a young plumbing salesman gains a mentor – except the mentor is terrible. He advises his protégée to buy a fancy car to impress customers but admits that when he did the same thing, exceeding his financial reach, the car was repossessed. Later, the mentor tells an inappropriate story to a customer that makes the customer dismiss them. “I think I fucked it up,” the mentor admits, then adds, “But at least I was talking.”

In “Costello,” characters anticipate an awards banquet and golf outing they consider first-rate since the organizers were “going all out . . . Prime rib, champagne, napkins.” At the event, however, the ceremony ends up in a parking lot after guests fall down drunk in sand traps and others hit golf balls from careening golf carts, causing the course manager to shut down the event.

Fittingly, since its protagonist is a would-be comedian, the funniest story is “Elephant Doors.” Part of the humor comes from the fact that the jokes he tells at open mic nights are so awful. He begins one appearance, “I finally found the self-help book that’s going to unlock my potential. It’s called Mein Kampf.” When the crowd greets this with silence he forges on with another Hitler joke, producing more silence.

3.
While all of Gavin’s stories are gems, the crown jewel is the last, “Costello,” which centers on a 60-something-year-old plumbing salesman.

The story originally appeared in The New Yorker and on the surface seems one of those “New Yorker” stories that unperceptive readers complain about: a slice of life in which little happens: Costello floats in his pool, watches Dodgers’ games, avoids visits by his neighbors, calls on customers, and tries to resolve what, in his universe, amounts to a crisis: the recall of 500 defective ballcocks he’d sold to southern California home developers. His high point is the golf outing/awards banquet where he’ll learn whether he’s won regional “sales rep of the year.”

Costello’s entire life, it seems, has been narrow. Although he served in Vietnam as a young man, when he came home his ambition was finding a job that allowed him to work in air conditioning.  He’s a Gary Cooper, doing little talking, especially about himself. In fact, much of what we know about him comes from “The Luau,” which centers on Costello’s son, the young salesman with the terrible mentor. We learn nothing, for example, about his tour in Vietnam, save that on R&R he had sex with a prostitute, the only woman aside from his wife he ever slept with. It’s one of Gavin’s finest strokes that even when the winner of the salesman of the year award gets announced, we have no insight into what Costello feels about the result; he’s as opaque there as he is about his time at war.

Yet, Costello has a heroism that eludes nearly all of Gavin’s other characters. When he has an appointment with someone at the company that produced the defective ballcocks and asks if they can visit the warehouse to make sure the replacements are in stock, the man refuses — he’s actually afraid since someone was attacked in the warehouse. Undaunted, Costello goes there alone and spends an hour counting the pieces to make sure they’re sufficient. At the banquet, after we learn who wins the award, Costello’s most overt gesture is to ask someone to call a cab for one of his drunken colleagues.

In every other story here, a character yearns for a different life than the one he or she has. (All of Gavin’s stories focus primarily on men, but “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror” shifts point of view between male and female cousins; the woman longs to break out of her life so much that she wishes a plane she’s on might crash land.)

Costello, however, doesn’t seek anything beyond his life; he even clearly accepts the distance in glory between himself and Magellan. His lack of ambition is not a failing however: he just expects nothing more. His life is his life; he does what he needs to do.

After all of the unhappy characters striving for shallow aims, Costello’s quality allows Gavin to close the collection with a sense of quiet hopefulness. It also gives Middle Men a larger shape that makes it, as all good collections should be, greater in total than merely a succession of well-crafted stories.

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