I wanted to reread Election, even though I read it a few years ago, because they produced an audiobook version of it in connection to the sequel coming out. Election is still very very funny and insightful, and one of the few books that I read where it actual feels like the person writing it has worked in a school, or spent enough time with a school to narrate the experience. It’s also a very outdated time capsule of a book now. The sentiments alone make this true. Several of the narrative voices are misogynistic and cruel toward students in general, and especially women and girls. There’s a lack of self-awareness (often masked as awareness) that pervades several of the characters. What strikes me as very interesting and something I don’t remember about the book from my first reading is the ways in which Perrotta ties the novel to the 1992 presidential election with Tracy Flick as George HW Bush (head), Paul Warren as Bill Clinton (heart), and Paul’s sister Tammy as Ross Perot (wildcard). This comes up a few different times in the novel, but especially as Tracy is looking at an article about the election and sees a quote about George Bush being nothing but the ambition to be president — all fire in the belly, and sees herself in the comment and asks the perfectly reasonable question, so what? The new audio production is very good. If you haven’t heard a book with Santino Fontana, you should check him out, he very much elevates the material. The biggest issue with the book outside of the recklessness with sentiment is how constructed it feels. All the pieces are there, and they fit too neatly together unfortunately.
Tracy Flick Can’t Win
The sequel to Election acts as a kind of mea culpa in narrative form, to a certain extent. One of the great things about black comedy is its way of hiding in plain sight as more straightforward comedy, looking for a chance to make a turn. That’s all I say about that part.
Tracy is 45 or so now and is an assistant principal at a New England high school. So many writers come from privileged backgrounds and go to private colleges that they just don’t know anything about public school. This book does. Anyway, even just the update from book one to two of “vice principal” to “assistant principal” is a good start. Anyway, if it feels like a disappointment for Tracy to be a simple assistant principal, don’t worry she feels it too. The book supports her story and explains in satisfactory reasons why she’s here. That comment from the first book about her being all fire in the belly is still true about her. She’s the kind of person that unfortunately is so technically skilled and so proficient in her talents, that she’s treated robotically. If this feels like a big shift from 1992 to 2018, it is. What is seen as a flaw in Bush in book one, it’s seen as something unfairly maligned in book two. So Tracy has clearly gone from George Bush to Hillary Clinton, even though that specific connection is not explicitly drawn. The plot here is that the head principal of the school decides he’s going to retire at the end of the year. Tracy is all but assured that the job is hers. She still takes the job search seriously, and very much wants the job. While playing politics is not her best talent, she is friends with the head of the schoolboard, a retired tech bro who also wants to give back to the school he went to before making it big. Together they put together a Hall of Fame for the school and initiate the first year’s prize committee. The obvious choice is the retired pro-football star. We go from there.
The book does reflect back on the sins of the first book in a few ways. Tracy is starting to process the abuse she faced from her 10th English teacher, which is played in a very 1990s way in the first book, and the principal character reflects about 40 years of education and what has changed and not changed in the meantime. The overarching theme of the book is general is about making amends, as the football star (whose sections are not narrated in his voice, I would say, because of the CTE that inflicts his mind, so we end up with close third person instead) is in recovery and working his steps. This idea will swirl in various ways over and over. Both books demand that we pay attention to characters who are well-rendered, even if unlikeable. However, Tracy is treated with much more care in this book and is undeniably the star here.
Tom Perrotta likes a good affair. In this book, the one the movie was based off of years ago, takes places in a small town, with small town values. A few things are swirling at the beginning before we settle into things. Sarah is at the playground with a group of mothers, all tending their children. They notice the new hot dad showing up, who they call “Prom King” and Sarah takes a wager that for $5 she can get his number. They don’t even know his name. He’s at the swings and she takes her daughter over and they begin chatting. Rather than being coy, she tells him about the bet, and when neither has a pen, he makes a joke about kissing her to rile them up, and well, it turns out that kiss is something else.
As both return to their respective home, thinking about the scandalous kiss, we learn that Todd is a 31 year old married dad who is “stay at home” while he studies for the bar exam for the third time. His wife is a documentary filmmaker who would like things to flip, but is giving him space. What she doesn’t know is that while he’s supposed to be studying in the evenings, he’s usually watching a group of kids skateboarding in the parking lot. He’s looking to do something reckless it seems. Sarah is married to an older “business guy” who is himself obsessed with an internet sex worker. Sarah was once an anti-porn radical feminist who mellowed out (well, had it beaten out of her by capitalism) as she aged and got disillusioned with academics. She came to the painful realization that she wouldn’t ever be a star, and only stars get jobs. She is also looking to do something reckless.
As they begin their affair, we also learn about Ronald, a just released sexual criminal (he exposed himself to a girl scout) and Larry, a former police officer who killed an unarmed Black teenager in a mall and is now unemployed. He’s got a hobby though, harassing just released sexual criminals at their mother’s home after finding them online. Larry and Todd link up with Larry impresses Todd into an after hours football league for violent has-beens (Todd was a small college quarterback) and eventually Todd joins him on the harassment campaign.
The model for the book is tied to Madame Bovary (as we are told when a book group reads Madame Bovary) and like all affairs in movies and books, the seeds of destruction are sown into the very moment of meeting. There’s a knowing and cutting incisiveness with a certain kind of suburb that this book really has the number of.