I don’t often read short stories. I just prefer to read something that I can live with for at least a few days, rather than half an hour. But when I learned that Tom Perrotta had a new book, I made an exception. I discovered Perotta two years ago when I read his stunning last novel, The Leftovers. The Leftovers chronicles what happens to those leftover after “the rapture” happens. Focusing on one family in a small town, Perrotta brilliantly imagines the reactions of those remaining when 100 of their neighbors inexplicably disappear. The town’s mayor, Kevin Garvey struggles to rally the town and find purpose to move forward, while his own family falls apart. His wife joins a newly formed cult, the Guily Remnant who haunt the town like chain-smoking ghosts. His son drops out of college to follow Holy Wayne, a self proclaimed prophet. He and his daughter are left to carry on when everything about their lives has been irrevocably altered, to learn to live without the reassurance of natural order. Perrotta reminds us that permanence is an illusion that we rely on as part of our human nature, and he ends this brilliant novel reminding us of another human characteristic–the ability to find hope.
It wasn’t really surprising that reading Perotta’s 2013 collection of short stories, Nine Inches was like sitting down with a box of Godiva truffles. Each was exquisitely delicious and I had to stop from devouring the whole lot at one sitting. Each story delivers an emotional punch, sympathetically revealing the not so pretty side of human nature. “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” is my favorite. A middle aged Umpire recalls the events that led to his exile from his wife and children, the slap across his gay son’s face and the ugliness inside of him that led to it. The reflection occurs as he calls a game pitched by the unlikely, brilliant pitcher, Lori Chang, while her permanently stone-faced father watches from the bleachers, as he does every game. When Lori’s wild pitch brands the leg of an opposing batter, she is answered next inning by a bullet to the head during her at bat and is rendered temporarily unconscious. In the seconds before she recovers, her father springs to life, tackles the coach who is obviously responsible, and savagely beats him until he is apprehended by a police officer and escorted from the field, smiling broadly. The championship game resumes and Lori returns to the mound to uncharacteristically load the bases with two outs in the ninth, the go-ahead run on base. It comes down to the last pitch and it comes down to a defining moment for our umpire. This is the stuff that made a short story reader out of me.
I don’t want to give the impression that Perrotta’s landscape is always bleak and heavy because he manages to infuse his work with a good deal of humor as well. To get a taste of that, read the bio from his website; it’s the most creative, entertaining author selfie I’ve read.
P.S. The Leftovers is soon to be an HBO series.