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Suburban Islands Of Regret, More Than 'Nine Inches' Apart

Nine inches is the minimum distance required between middle school students during slow dances in the title story of Tom Perrotta's first book of short stories in 19 years. Nine miles — or make that nine light-years — is the distance between many of the narrators in these 10 stories, and the family and friends they've alienated with their stupid mistakes.

Perrotta, who's been called "the Steinbeck of suburbia," has shown in books such as Election and Little Children that he has a bead on the bad judgment and moral equivocating that drive adolescents to sabotage their futures, and adults to blow apart their marriages and make fools of themselves. Perrotta's middle-class suburbanites impulsively, often knowingly, shipwreck their lives, leaving themselves stranded on arid islands of regret.

While there are no duds in Nine Inches, when read one after another, the stories bleed together. The result is a collection that is oddly weaker than its individual parts. Recurrent subjects include strained neighborly relations, high school seniors already in transition, husbands exiled from their families after what they regard as a single slip-up, uneasy school dance chaperones, and police officers toting emotional baggage in their holsters. All the stories involve lonelyhearts, the down but not permanently out.

Perrotta creates narrative tension by playing on our dread of the consequences of glaringly ill-advised behavior, from a teacher overconfiding in a student to a man breaking into his neighbor's garage. Yet he often takes his stories in unexpected directions. In "Backrub," Donald, an honor student who was rejected by all 12 colleges to which he applied, including three safety schools, takes a job delivering "sustainable" pizza in his small hometown. He is repeatedly pulled over for traffic violations by the same cop, whose hand strays uncomfortably to Donald's knee or neck. Uh-oh. But this turns out to be just a pit stop en route to the story's real destination, a morality tale about the dangers of "cocky and obnoxious" arrogance.

In "The Test-Taker," a nerdy high school senior, already accepted at college, applies a "strict code of professional conduct" to his lucrative job taking the SAT for other students. He rationalizes the ethics of his enterprise as part and parcel of a system in which money buys "special treatment," such as private tutors or doctors' notes for extra time. But when one of his clients snags the girl he's after, he decides failure would be a good lesson for the guy. While deliberately flubbing the exam, he rues "the kind of person I'd become" while "making one stupid mistake after another."

Writing about a lonely divorced pediatrician who's hopeful of starting a blues band, Perrotta comments, "there was a faint current of dread running beneath his optimism, because good things turned to shit all the time, and you couldn't always see it coming." The homophobic, biased umpire who narrates the book's strongest story, "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face," certainly didn't see his expulsion from domestic Eden coming, though he should have. A fraught Little League game drives home his personal problems. When a fight between two fathers ends with one in handcuffs, the narrator observes the dad sporting "the proud and defiant smile of a man at peace with what he'd done and willing to accept the consequences." This is in sharp contrast to the narrator's own reaction to being hauled off by the police a year earlier, after a fistfight with his gay son: "I couldn't believe the little f - - - -t had hit me. The punch I threw in return is the one thing in my life I'll regret forever."

Depressing? Well — sad. With less humor than in his earlier books, the ray of light in Perrotta's new stories comes from his characters' belated recognition of their foibles and failures, and their earnest and quintessentially American yearning to do better.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.