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Suffer the Adults: In his latest book, 'Little Children,' Tom Perrotta wonders how people can grow up without giving in.

'Election' Author Wins Readers

Novelist Tom Perrotta comes to Montalvo literary series bearing his 'Little Children' and other bestsellers

By Richard von Busack

THERE MAY NOT be another current American novelist as profound and yet as succinct as 44-year-old Tom Perrotta. All five of Perrotta's books make fast, even beachy reading, and yet they're loaded with integrity.

Election (1998) is a hideo-comedy about a high school that swallows up students and teachers alike. The sex humor made the book popular, but underneath, Election is a lament. It mourns for how the most ruthless and emotionally empty people are forever drawn to power.

On that subject, let's quote Tracy Flick, the cutthroat teen pol who has just learned the useful phrase "Fire in the belly": "It jarred something loose in me. ... I belong to a secret and powerful club—me, George Bush [the first], Madonna, Dan Rather, plus thousands of people you've never heard of—and we're all lying there in separate beds with our eyes wide open and these tiny bonfires blazing in our stomachs."

Alexander (Sideways) Payne's film version unleashed Reese Witherspoon on a defenseless world. Payne saw more merriment in the story than seems to be in the novel. Maybe that's hindsight. No doubt Perrotta has been told this a million times, but the book forecasts the calamitous 2000 stalemate between a bland but deserving candidate and a charismatic conniver.

Perrotta's debut, 1994's Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, reads like a satisfying mix of Kevin Smith and Jean Shepherd. Perrotta's images of the fictional Darwin, N.J., show the making of a young man highlighted against the cultural breakdown of the 1970s. Perrotta never senselessly nostalgizes his background; how could he, when his characters are at constant risk of emotional or physical violence? Perrotta mirrors the strange decade with the ordinary incidents of an adolescent's life: losing his virginity or spoiling a Christmas.

The Wishbones (1997) takes us on a more optimistic trip to his native turf. The Wishbones are a steadily employed New Jersey wedding band, understandably scared of marriage, since they've played so many hideous ones. During the course of a light novel openly dedicated to music and love, the musicians grow up a little, but not too much.

Joe College (2000) recounts a Yale student's year in 1980. It was, it seems now, a lucky time to have gone to school. The 1970s hangover and punk-rock made flaunting wealth bad form. Danny, lower-middle-class born and bred, is snagged between the upper crust and the people he meets in his spring-break job: piloting a lunch truck through deepest New Jersey.

Perrotta's most recent novel, his most tragic, leaves Jersey completely behind. The 2004 bestseller Little Children (St. Martin's Griffin) takes a passage from Madame Bovary as its epigraph. Like Bovary, it's a story of boredom in the provinces; like Bovary, it shies from twin pitfalls of sentiment and judgment.

An adulterous couple comes together, lured by mutual passiveness and frustration. The subject matter is like John Updike, but Perrotta seems less certain that the pleasures of sex are enough to free a person for good. Little Children suggests why the comforts of sports or Internet porn provide a little liberation in a punitive, frightened community, scared of independence, scared of pedophilia and, mostly, scared of each other. In this unnamed New England suburb, "Most people just fall into line like obedient little children."

Little Children is a brave book. It takes toughness to write about children with such clarity. Seeing past cuteness, Perrotta notes the "hard little voice" of a demanding 3-year-old, ordering around his mother, an aged child of the 1960s revolution. In all his books, Perrotta asks how a man or a woman can mature without dying; how they can slough off the skin of youth without being a traitor to the person they were.

Tom Perrotta appears Thursday (March 30) at 7:30pm at the Carriage House Theatre, Villa Montalvo, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. Tickets are $20. (408.998.8497)

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From the March 22-28, 2006 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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