Entertainment & the Arts: Sunday, March 28, 2004

“Little Children” by Tom Perotta

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

Tom Perrotta has carved out an impressive career writing about adolescents in “Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies,” “The Wishbones,” “Election” and “Joe College.” Though not all of his main characters have been technically adolescents, the lead in “The Wishbones,” for example, was a 20-something musician who still lived with his parents, Perotta’s main characters can be thematically linked through their adolescent ethos.

Who am I; what can I get away with; ’tis it nobler to rock on or grow up?

“Little Children” is Perrotta’s first attempt at an adult novel, an ensemble piece about two unfortunate suburban couples and their dysfunctional neighbors. Todd, a former high-school football star in his mid-20s, is married to Kathy, a beautiful documentary filmmaker. They have a 3-year-old son, the sole focus of Kathy’s affections. Todd has become a househusband, a handsome loser who has flunked the bar exam twice and is about to go down a third time. He begins an affair with Sarah, a quasi-feminist who is married to Richard, an Internet porn addict who eventually dumps Sarah to pursue Slutty Kay, an Internet porn queen.

And for a bit more spice, a convicted child molester moves into the seemingly placid neighborhood.

This might sound like John Cheever run amok, except that Perrotta is a satirist. He cuts loose here with some hilarious observations and set pieces that expose human foibles at their funniest. Perrotta’s fans will find this book to be one of his most knowing. The scene where Todd’s tackle-football team takes the field against a group of surprisingly beefy accountants is absolutely classic, grown men with jobs and wives acting like dimwitted bad boys.

So, all told, Perrotta is once again writing about adolescents, except with children. Todd and Sarah revel in the rush of initial infatuation, exhibiting none of the earned wisdom and inhibitions of adulthood. They would be maddening in their naiveté if not for Perrotta’s incisive comic eye. He manages to satirize and sympathize at the same time, redeeming all his characters by digging deep for their shared humanity, which shines through in a surprisingly serious final scene.


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