Sometimes life seems like one disappointment after another. My latest is a 2004 work by Tom Perrotta called Little Children. The novel was enthusiastically reviewed and became a movie (starring Kate Winslet no less) that I missed, but which I heard complimented in passing on Ebert and Roeper the other evening. I guess I’m just a fuddy-duddy out of step with most of the rest of the literary world. I’m glad I read it all the way through because the last third or so improves to the level of decent writing. However, the total effect is decidedly unsatisfying.
The cast is seems to have stepped out of Desperate Housewives, made quirky and “modern” by gimmick rather artistic necessity. You know exactly how Perrotta wants you to feel about most of the shallow and cartoony characters that inhabit this modernized, suburban Peyton Place–The controlling bitch, for example, and the frowsy intellectual with an inferiority complex and a bisexual past, or the emotionally cowardly gorgeous hunk, or the bullying ex-cop who can’t get it up–and Perrotta takes us back through each college and high school backstory to make sure we haven’t missed anything about how these caricatured folks got to be the way they are. The only exception to the rule is the pedophile whose presence in the community excites a predictable flurry of responses. Whether he is victim or savage Perrotta skillfully holds in reserve until nearly the end. Even then, his place in the moral universe remains a tad ambiguous, and the ambiguity enriches a book which takes place mostly on the emotional and moral surface of things.
I also had problems with the language. Such soap-opera worthy lines as “Ohmigod, I can’t believe I’m flirting with him” and “Are we out of our minds? We should stop before somebody gets hurt.” set my teeth so on edge I nearly quit reading. However, something happens to the writing rather late in the book. The prose seems to mature, and relationships take on new dimensions–save for a completely unbelievable chain of events involving a panty-sniffing husband and an internet porn queen. The uptick finale saves Little Children from pure banality, but it seems to me an overall loser. Maybe a five or six on the ten-scale.
A friend sent me a review of Perrotta’s latest book, about a child who finds born-again salvation in Christ but has to hide her bible from her PC parents. See what I mean about calculated quirks? It’ll probably sell a million, though, so who am I?
Chopped liver, signing off.