Tom Perrotta: Nine Inches

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I get like this every now and then: I get a hankering for a good, solid collection of stories. So it was very fortuitous, while recently browsing in a second-hand bookshop, that I noticed the spine of a book called Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta. Sounds like the name of a story collection, I thought, and indeed it was—an exceptionally good one at that.

Set in no-name suburban (and very white) America, the characters in these stories come from privileged backgrounds. They tend to be outstanding or otherwise promising members of their community; many of whom are either teachers or high school students. But of course something always goes awry. Their place in society, their marriage, or that bright future is ripped out from under them—and often at their own doing.

In the title story, certainly one of the best, nine inches refers to not what you think but to how close students are allowed to get during a middle school dance. Ethan and Charlotte are chaperoning the event, two teachers whose former mutual interest fizzled out when Charlotte chose to return to her husband. But when they witness the beauty and innocence of a teenage boy and girl flouting the nine-inch rule, “as if the two of them were the only people who mattered in the world, as if they had no one to answer to but themselves,” it’s a bittersweet reminder of missed opportunities and regretful decisions.

In “Backrub” Donald is a promising high school graduate who fails to get into any of the twelve colleges he applied for, including the three he describes as his “safeties.” Now delivering pizzas for a living, he gets pulled over several times for minor driving offences, always by the same cop, and always to suffer his unwanted advances. Eventually Donald and his boss expand the business by dealing and delivering drugs hidden in the pizza containers. So when Donald is pulled over yet again (not by the same cop; his stupid mistake cost him his job when other young men in town began lodging complaints), we learn of Donald’s own act of poor judgment and self-sabotage that cost him his college education.

In “The Test Taker,” a smart young high school student named Josh has a side job writing the SATs for other students using fake ID. He’s good at it, he writes them with ease, and, moral issues aside, has a strong uncompromising work ethic. One day he discovers he is to write the test for Jake Harlowe, someone he goes to school with, “a football and lacrosse star, one of those popular, good-looking kids everybody knows and likes”; the kind of kid, Josh tells us, who didn’t need to cheat and for whom “everything came easily.” Josh has misgivings about the assignment, and contrary to his irreproachable work ethic, he goes to a party the night before the test and gets very drunk. While there, Jake shows up and essentially steals the girl Josh is interested in. The next morning, not surprisingly, Josh fails the test, not because it was difficult or because he was hungover, but in order to teach Jake a lesson and to punish him for his arrogance.

While the language and style Perrotta employs in these stories is rather plain and unexceptional, even somewhat pedestrian—a far cry from Ben Fountain’s stellar prose in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, the last collection of stories I was thoroughly impressed by from cover to cover—how Perrotta tells these stories and how he has structured them makes each of them not only a pleasure to read but, if you’re someone who writes stories, also worth rereading and studying, as each one is a hit.