US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 05-01-2004
355 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 05-13-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004
From the outside, the suburban life is desirable because it lacks suspense. The worries imposed by life in the city or the country are lacking. There is neither the pressure of the crowds nor the vacuum of their absence. It's the best of both worlds; your neighbors live close enough to become your friends or far enough to remain anonymous, according to your preferences. Your very ability to afford such accommodations implies wealth that offers comfort but does not encourage carelessness. It's a little slice of heaven, except when it isn't. If only those pesky people didn't live there!
To write an effective book about such a setting offers a lot of challenges. There's a school of thought that says if Heaven is indeed perfect, it must be rather boring, and the same applies to the suburbs. How does the writer get to the core of the lives there without succumbing to the very boredom that envelops the characters whose lives you are writing about? Tom Perrotta does so by using language so transparent that it's analogous to the squeaky-clean windows through which he virtually peeps to show us the shenanigans of those inside. 'Little Children' is so effectively written that it seems more like a voice inside the reader's head than a novel written with words on paper. The novel shimmers and disappears, leaving the reader with a cast of characters that quite fortunately, do not live next door.
Perrotta's cast of characters offers a sly look at the Great Homogenizer. The twenty-first century finds Todd, a one-time jock who somehow managed to finish law school, married to Kathy, a documentary filmmaker, and the father of three-year old Aaron. He's not quite got round to actually passing the bar exam, however, and it doesn't seem likely that he's going to. Staying home to take care of Aaron, he's become accustomed to the pace of life in his little suburb, enamored of his trips to the playground where the stay-at-home moms call him The Prom King. Truth to tell, in a situation that would otherwise suggest maturity, Todd has managed to remain firmly immature. It's not something he's going to give up easily.
Sarah is a one-time college feminist who finds herself married to Richard, a bit older, well-enough-to-do to be able to own a house instead of renting like Todd and Kathy. When Sarah and Todd meet in the playground, circumstances maneuver them into a brief, playful, fateful kiss. It's one of those bad decisions that seem fine at the time.
Ronnie McGorvey is a convicted child molester, suspected of kidnapping and killing a little girl. Though the authorities were never able to charge him with that crime, it's well known that he was accused, and now, as he moves in to the same neighborhood where Todd and Sarah live, to join his aging mother, he's the target of a ruthless campaign of harassment.
Perrotta effectively puts the reader into the minds of these characters and more. 'Little Children' is filled with moments of wry humor and observations so clear they hurt, just a little. As each of the men and women who people Perrotta's town are moved forward -- they rarely do anything on their own -- the inevitable approaches with the powerful dread of an unavoidable automobile accident. Perrotta's characters aren't exactly likeable or sympathetic, but his language is so note-perfect that readers are dropped in to their lives, like them or not.
Perrotta has a lot to say about a lot of things, and he does so with the same economy and transparency with which he creates the characters. The logical endpoint of feminism -- the stay-at-home-man -- gets ample and not exactly flattering treatment. But Perrotta is as fair and he is skilled with his words. Readers go with his flow because he's never stacking the deck. He's like the most accomplished of magicians, who do not even appear to be performing until the performance is complete and the end is utterly, terrifyingly apparent.
Men of course, are only half the equation. Feminism, from Flaubert to Andrea Dworkin, gets a nice firming-up workout in 'Little Children'. Sarah dreams the dream, while Kathy lives it. Neither of them manages to be particularly happy in the process. Mary Ann, the unpleasant ringleader of the Playground Mom Mafia at least manages to offer a façade of happiness.
Perrotta's suburbs are seething with quiet perversion. The Internet plays no small part in accomplishing the work of the Great Homogenizer. Perversion is a point of view, Perrotta quietly observes; witness the thoughts of Larry, the ex-cop now leading The Committee of Concerned Parents. But in Perrotta's novel, you don't witness anything; you experience it. And experiencing the thoughts of child molester Ronnie McGorvey is not exactly a comforting encounter.
Perrotta moves his plot and characters with a light, sure hand and quickly creates the suspense that the suburbs are supposed to lack. The compulsive nature of the novel cleverly parallels the characters who people it. There's a great deal of humor to be found here, the kind of smart writing that doesn't call attention to itself until the reader steps outside the novel to experience life without the intermediary brilliance of Perrotta's prose.
The importance of the prose is brought home in the conclusion of the novel. But that conclusion becomes a back door, through which we can re-enter Perrotta's world and re-experience the lives of quiet -- and not-so-quiet -- desperation of Perrotta's characters. Perrotta wrings suspense out of character, out of language, out of life, life unadulterated by the intervention of extremes and excesses. Each day offers the chance for transformation and the chance to reject transformation. Our little dramas make up our lives, and our decisions make up our days. Interrupt the flow of your life by reading Tom Perrotta's 'Little Children' and you're not likely to see it in the same way afterwards. Suspense will find a way to creep into your life. Viewed it through the lens of Perrotta's language, your life may seem a bit clearer as well.