Tom Perrotta’s “Nine Inches” is a short-story collection, with 10 discrete pieces featuring entirely different characters and situations. And yet the stories hang together so beautifully, the writing is so stylistically consistent, and the themes so closely related that the book feels like a novel or a collection of interlocking stories. It’s as if we’re wandering through a specific community in a particular town, as in James Joyce’s “Dubliners” or in so many of Ann Beattie’s and Raymond Carver’s collections. We’re in PerrottaWorld, where the stories, characters, and concerns all seem to rhyme.
And PerrottaWorld is located, of course, in the American suburbs. Over the years the Belmont-based author of “Little Children” and “The Leftovers” has been the literary chronicler of suburban angst. With “Nine Inches,” he further explores the ordinary lives of the quietly desperate middle class, with their school dances, baseball fields, broken families, and backyard pools. PerrottaWorld is a pretty place, but the sharp corners of despair keep breaking through the veneer of forced optimism and quaint architecture. The trees in Perrotta’s Northeastern towns are peaceful and lovely until a branch falls from a tree in your neighbor’s yard and breaks your fence.
Not that this is a book version of Alan Ball’s satirical “American Beauty.” The tone of the stories in “Nine Inches” isn’t biting so much as melancholy. Perrotta isn’t confronting the smugness or entitlement of suburbanites; he is their compassionate voice, the cryptographer of their sorrows. He draws even the more dislikable and petty characters — usually parents who act like children — without judgment, so we can more clearly see them steeping in their own pain. One of the best stories here is “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” in which a Little League umpire is haunted by the moment when he struck his young gay son. He’s the archetypal old-school male locked in a cycle of shame, remorse, and denial.
One of the pleasures of “Nine Inches” is that, while the stories are short on action, revolving around a local funeral home, or bus stop, or bar, they have emotional momentum. Many of the pieces hinge on a moment when a character’s ire, passion, vengeance, or flight response erupts after lurking too long underground. The characters don’t “break bad,” but they break long enough to go astray — as in “One-Four-Five,” in which a married doctor falls for the mother of a dying child and has cursory sex with a coworker. They go astray, break the rules, then find their way back to a different life.
The title story refers to the distance that chaperones at a middle-school soiree must enforce between kids on the dance floor. After one of the characters gets the obvious penis-size joke out of the way, the phrase “Nine Inches” takes on an unexpected poignancy. Joni Mitchell wrote about the costs of that kind of enforced distance in her song “Come in from the Cold,” as the adults “hawk-eyed” students in the 1950s, “holding their rulers without a heart.” Perrotta, too, negotiates the price of turning intimacy into some kind of complex measuring game, as two of the chaperones find that, while they’ve worked to keep their charges apart, they’ve been gauging their own relationship by the same standard. The 1950s don’t die easily.
A few of the stories focus primarily on kids, an area in which Perrotta excels, as those who’ve read “Election” know. Young lives, too, take unexpected sometimes dark turns in “Nine Inches.” “Senior Season” puts a kid who has a football brain injury on a collision course with his elderly leaf-obsessed neighbor. The injury has made Clay more conscious of mortality than most kids his age, which makes it hard for him to mingle with them. When he finally acts out on the leaves, which look like “scraps torn from a huge pile of brown paper bags,” the story’s autumnal metaphor and reality collide perfectly.
It’s a great skill for a fiction writer to be able to get inside the traumas and frustrations of teenagers and adolescents without seeming precious and without diminishing or overinflating their issues. Perrotta applies the same even-handed and straightforward grace to his younger characters and to his adults; often, it turns out, their conflicts and struggles aren’t as different as we might expect.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.