Having penned Election, a great novel of high-school manners, Tom Perrotta gives us Joe College, a great novel about college mores. In 1982, one Yale junior struggles with George Eliot, dorm blanket bingo, dining-hall dish-line duty, a massive crush on a girl in love with his favorite prof, daily cards and calls from a girl back home in New Jersey, and a lush profusion of authentically individual yet instantly recognizable undergrad eccentrics. After an evening of ritualistic bong hits, kimchee feasting, and sympathetic discussion of Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who shot President McKinley, Danny thinks of his parents: "Was this what they scrimped and sacrificed for all those years? So their son could spend his Tuesday nights drinking beer, smoking dope, eating weird food, and learning to see the assassin's side of the story?"
Yup, that's the way it was, and Perrotta's immense strength is to give moment-by-moment immediacy to his hero's tortuous internal monologue. Instead of dumping his Jersey girl, Danny figures, "if I avoided her long enough, she'd get tired of waiting and supply my half of the conversation on her own, thereby sparing me the unpleasantness of having to be the bad guy." Yet he is also capable of heroism, as when he impulsively defies no-neck Mafiosi who menace his dad's "Roach Coach" lunch truck, which Danny drives to blue-collar work sites during school breaks. What gives the story structure is the collision in our hero's soul between his former life and the world of towers, moats, and upward mobility. He can't quite identify with his hometown reverence for Bruce Springsteen, but it rubs him wrong to see Springsteen LPs played "for the enjoyment of people who were going to end up being the bosses of the people the Boss was singing about. Nobody in Entryway C was born to run."
Election may have a better plot, but Joe College scoots along like a waterskeeter on a marvelous stream of consciousness. Tom Perrotta was born to write. --Tim Appelo [via]