Cbr12bingo adaptation, Bingo #3 (vertical, Music to Violet)
The movie version of this novel came out in 1999, and I have never seen it in full so I cannot tell you how faithful it is to the book. But I can say that this is a really fun read, and pretty quick. Author Tom Perrotta employs a variety of characters as narrators recalling the events of a few short weeks in the spring of 1992. One might not think that a high school election for student government president could be so interesting, shocking and thought provoking, but Perrotta takes the reader into the surprising and sometimes sordid lives of a few high school teachers and students as they prepare for the student government election and watch their personal lives unravel.
The national presidential election and a horrifying local crime provide the backdrop for Election. It’s 1992 and Bill Clinton is running against both George H.W. Bush and his own record of sexual indiscretions. Locally, the members of a high school football team stand accused of sexually assaulting a minor girl with Down syndrome. Popular high school social studies teacher Jim McAllister, aka Mr. M, tries to engage his students on these issues, asking “How are private virtue and public responsibility intertwined?” Mr. M also oversees the high school election procedure, and when he discovers that over-achiever Tracy Flick is running unopposed for school president, he decides to encourage Paul Warren, a good student and popular member of the football team, to run against her.
“Private versus public” is front and center as we realize that the images that various characters have cultivated for themselves do not jibe with how they really feel and how they act when no one is looking. Tracy Flick is an outstanding student and involved in just about every activity on offer at school, but she also had an affair with a teacher who lost his job as a result. In her narration, she speaks about it in a matter-of-fact manner. Tracy is goal-oriented, organized, and has her life planned out, but she has no close friends. She and her mother live on their own, and her mother is ambitious on her behalf. Paul is quite different from Tracy. While she busts her butt to get everything she can, Paul seems to just naturally be on the receiving end of good fortune. He is a football player, which ensures automatic popularity; he is a National Merit semi-finalist (much to his own surprise); and he is honored when Mr. M suggests that he run for president. Paul is a nice guy, but he seems a bit naive. His parents’ recent divorce, caused by his father’s infidelity, has forced him to really pay more attention to the world around him but he still misses a lot, such as his younger sister Tammy’s sexual preferences. He notices that her friend Lisa used to come over a lot and then stopped, and he is pleased when Lisa becomes his campaign manager/girlfriend. He cannot imagine what came between them, nor why Tammy decides to throw her own hat in the ring for president.
The “responsible adults” at the high school are the ones who are pretty shocking in their behavior. The vice principle is always saying gross things about the female students. Mr. Dexter had an affair with Tracy while his wife was pregnant. Mr. M, formerly a very good friend of Mr. Dexter, can’t stand Tracy, and both he and Mr. Dexter are responsible for creating the messes that screw up their own lives and so many others. Tracy knows that Mr. M has put Paul up to running against her and just digs in her heels and works harder to win. Mr. M resorts to some pretty childish and unethical behavior to help Paul in his campaign, and he starts an affair with Sherry Dexter, his former best friend’s wife. Meanwhile, Tammy’s slacker/non-conformist campaign gains unexpected traction and puts her in contact with students she’d never really known before. This will have a transformative effect on Tammy, as she takes a course of action that she believes will ultimately get her the kind of life she dreams of but feels she cannot achieve at her current high school.
Tammy and Tracy, for me, are the most interesting characters in the book. Each girl wants something in her life that is missing, each forms plans and puts in the work to achieve their goal, and each sets people like Mr. M on edge. Mr. M, by his own admission, had the life that he always wanted and has no one but himself to blame for losing it.
Election is still a pretty interesting book twenty years after it was published. We continue to struggle with issues of sexuality and privilege, different standards for powerful men, and ambitious women who alarm authority. I found the end of the novel to be mostly satisfying, and I think it is different from the movie. A book group could have some fun discussing whether justice was done and what they would have liked to happen to the main characters.