14 March 2006

the Wishbones, by Tom Perotta

Tom Perotta has a knack for writing fiction that it eminently read-able; light, breezy, but surprisingly reflective, and highly sympathetic. I say this based on the two books of his I've read; the Wishbones, and Little Children - but the movie Election, which is based on his novel, seems to support my theory. Anyhow.
Perotta's main strength is his ability to portray characters who might otherwise seem reprehensible in a sympathetic fashion, without whitewashing their actions. It's not that he makes them seem like normal people who just happen to be doing bad things, it's more that he makes them seem like people. It makes you realize how common it is for "bad guys" or characters that are at all morally suspect to be portrayed as being of a different order of human somehow. He uses this strategy to great effect in Little Children, but it only seems to work for the male characters in this book. The women are a bit flat and cliche, and somewhat less sympathetic. Alas. It might have something to do with the fact that The Wishbones is told entirely from a male perspective - the main heroes, for the most part, but occasionally from that of his bandmates, whereas Little Children jumps from person to person (quite effectively).
I just wasn't really blown away by this book. I enjoyed reading it, but it felt sort of tired. The plot chronicles the exploits of a dude who is 31, living with his parents, playing guitar in a wedding band. Then he "accidentally" proposes to his girlfriend and his whole world turns upside down, because it looks like he might actually have to grow up. I've got to be honest, it's kind of hard for me to have sympathy for the guy, maybe because I've dated guys who are of the same species, and the similarity hit a little close to home. Especially because the fiancee, for the first part of the book, seems like such an irritating bitch. As the book progresses, she gets a bit more sympathetic, but as I said above, she's still kind of flat and uninteresting. Also, the reflections on adulthood and growing up didn't do a lot for me. High school wasn't the best time of my life, and while Perotta doesn't go whole hog into nostalgia for adolescence, there is this wistfulness about how exciting the world was when you were 17. I can sort of relate, but yeah, I much prefer being 23, and actually doing something with my life. I tend to resent descriptions of growing up as this drab, miserable process, because it only serves to justify the desire of these guys who can't grow up to sit in their basement watching tv.
Wow, tell me how you really feel, eh?
I dunno. It's not a bad book, but I guess I was expecting it to be as good as Little Children, which I devoured a few months ago - I couldn't put the damn thing down - and it just wasn't, at all. He does have kind of an addictive writing style, but I didn't care as much about this book.
Oh, another great feature of Perotta's writing - he has these very playful, enjoyable descriptions of sex and desire. I really value that in a book. It's not easy to do. He says, for instance: ``She was wearing a (...) a black floral print dress that was one of Dave's favorites (she occasionally `forgot' to wear underwear with it, a lapse that thrilled him beyond words)" - it's not incredibly sexy, but it captures something about the fact that sex is exciting, even if it's with a person you've been having sex with for years, and have practically memorized.
The descriptions of love are also kind of fascinating. He seems to want to have both the exciting, storybook kind of love, and the more simple domestic kind. And ultimately, the domestic kind tends to win out, and is shown to still have some of the excitement that the romance movie kind has. Still, it's not completely persuasive. A better example of that kind of thing is Mil Millington's A Certain Chemistry, which is also a highly amusing read.
Anyhow, if you're going to read one of Perotta's books, definitely go with Little Children over this one. Little Children has some of the same themes - Perotta is really conflicted about becoming an adult, I guess - but it's got a much more interesting plot. It describes a bunch of people living in Suburbia, focusing on two people who are having an affair with each other after meeting in a playground where they've taken their kids. It's a great book, and a fast read.

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