Gotham Diary:
8 December 2011

Directly beneath the photo and squib about Tom Perrotta, on the back of the box containing the 8 CDs of the audiobook edition of The Leftovers, it says, clearly and distinctly: Read by Dennis Boutsikaris. But I managed to miss this notice in my sudden eagerness to hear the author read his latest novel. I didn’t buy The Leftovers when it came out, even though I’m something of a Perrotta fan — that “something” is precisely what I’m trying to put my finger on” —because it’s about the aftermath of a Rapture=like event called the Sudden Departure. Oh, dear no; I didn’t want to read about that. But it was easy to persuade myself, in the hunt for a satisfying audio experience, that I’d enjoy the book if Tom Perrotta read it to me. When I found out that that wasn’t going to happen — I was walking out the door on my way to Saturday night’s Orpheus concert when the discovery was made, and it was too late to fiddle with alternative entertainment — I was bitterly disappointed. Mr Boutsikaris is, apparently, a veteran reader of audiobooks who sounds a little bit like Dennis Farina, if not quite so Midwestern. I am not going to enjoy listening to him read The Leftovers. But I will make the best of it; the $39.95 (gasp) purchase price will not have been a total loss.

You wouldn’t think that Tom Perrotta’s novels would be my cup of tea. The author’s being an American male, for example. I don’t read novels by American males, almost, I could say, as a rule. Brian Morton is an exception that comes swiftly to mind, as of course does Jonathan Franzen. The run of prestigious American male novelists makes me feel like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Rachel Maddow all rolled into one: when is this kid’s mother coming to pick him up? The American male novelist generally assumes that (each) the story of a man who finds himself while rejecting or transcending everyday society is an interesting and useful story to tell. It is not, particularly as what the man usually finds out about himself is that sex is a gyp. American male novelists have little or no conception of the leading role that social life has in the formation of character. That’s probably why I make an exception for Tom Perrotta. Tom Perrotta has a complete conception of this fact of human nature.

But then, there’s his suburban subject matter. “Suburban” seems unduly marginalizing, because what Perrotta writes about is where most halfway comfortable people live, but I’m still very glad that I don’t live there. Perrotta doesn’t make it “interesting”; on the contrary, he seems determined, in the course of his career as a novelist, to get as close as he can to the default settings of American life. This is not to say that he wants to write about absolutely average, mediocre people. No, he’s writing about America, after all, and that means capturing the American Dream. What’s it like to live the American Dream, at least in its vernacular versions. What’s it like to be trying to live the American Dream? Ask me if I care.

Tom Perrotta seems to know — he seems reluctant, personally, to know what his work has taught him — that the American Dream is indeed a dream, something for sleepy-time. It is not an idea of being awake. It is not a plan for making the world a better place. On the contrary, it is a profoundly anti-social goal, and that’s what makes Perrotta a powerful writer — his knowing this. I think of Tom Perrotta as a man of George Carlin’s fierce intelligence but also of a Franciscan monk’s piety, respect for the world as it is. He neither rants nor preaches, but he limns good, decent people who have been sold a bill of goods.

He always makes me wonder what I’ve got to offer that’s any better.