The last time we heard from Tom Perrotta was 2011’s “The Leftovers.” In that novel, the people left behind after a Rapture-like event called The Sudden Departure grappled with a disaster that had no rhyme or reason.
With pop culture awash in end-times images of exploding landmarks and marauding zombies, “The Leftovers” (which is being adapted as a series for HBO) delivered a different kind of apocalypse — one that was quietly discombobulating, with everyday life soldiering on in the face of the utterly inexplicable.
“Nine Inches,” Perrotta’s new collection of short stories, does not have the fantastical elements that “The Leftovers” did, but the characters have a lot in common with the un-Raptured folks of that novel. They aren’t sure how their lives got be the way they are, and they don’t know how to respond to the baffling worlds they find themselves in.
The first couple of stories, “Backrub” and “Grade My Teacher,” are entertaining but feel a bit facile and rushed. They do, though, have some prime Perrotta quick-stroke descriptions: No one has a better ear for our time. The aimless former overachiever of “Backrub,” for instance, gets rejected by every college he applies for and now works for a business called Sustainable Pizza.
But those stories are warm-ups for what’s to come. As we settle into the heart of the book, things unfold more slowly, darkly and unexpectedly. The disasters in these characters’ lives aren’t metaphysical events like The Sudden Departure of “The Leftovers,” but the strokes of bad luck and bad timing feel almost supernaturally awful: a high school football player’s concussion, a funeral outburst that leads to incredibly ill-advised sex, a stunning turn in a Little League game, the random discovery of infidelity.
The characters’ personal apocalypses often hinge on feelings of lost masculinity (the protagonists of “Nine Inches” are 2-to-1 male). In “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” the narrator can’t process that his son his gay, which costs him his family. The aging Gus Ketchell of “Kiddie Pool” has erection problems, and discovers he has confided in exactly the wrong person about them.
The teacher/dance chaperone of the title story longs for a little escape from the demands of a toddler and his grumpy, pregnant wife. Clay, the high school football player of “Senior Season,” finds the world order he knew upended after his concussion. For Perrotta’s men, women often loom as more confident, powerful and confusing, although he gives us just enough glance into the minds of female secondary characters to hint that the male characters’ views of them are hardly full.
With his female protagonists, Perrotta skimps on the insulted Vicki of “Grade My Teacher.” The lonely mother and grandmother of “The Chosen Girl” is more developed, but is still almost entirely defined by her maternalness. Liz, a single mom and chaperone of “The All-Night Party,” is one of the most likable and fully developed characters, capable of both self-pity and instinctive care for others.
“The All-Night Party” and most of the other stories of “Nine Inches” focus on times when the adult world intersects with the worlds of teens or tweens. They speak with honesty about the emotions that younger people stir in weary, older hearts. The adults feel resentment and jealousy around teenagers, but also a protectiveness. As readers, we see them viewing the world as adolescents, chafing at rules they had no say in, or angry at the smug and entitled who hold sway over their worlds. Both the teen and adult protagonists of “Nine Inches” act out in frustration, but the grown-ups’ actions are no more articulate.
Just as the characters’ cathartic rebellions are awkward, so are their steps toward redemption. They fumble through guitar chords, help a neighbor bag great handfuls of wet leaves, make a grand gesture that’s misunderstood. What they are all seeking, of course, is connection, and they’re drawn to it even when it arrives in the most improbable forms.
The longing at the heart of “Nine Inches” comes in the title story, when Ethan, the teacher chaperoning at a middle-school dance, is taken aback by the closeness between two slow-dancing students. There’s nothing prurient in his interest; he’s simply longing for that unsullied, uncomplicated connection, “as if the two of them were the only two people mattered in the world, as if they had no one to answer to but themselves.”