New Book from NJ's Own Tom Perrotta
The writer shows our suburban reality, based in his real (local) life -- True Jersey Fiction.
New Jersey gets a bad rap sometimes. Our down-the-shore antics become televised escapades, and the state's countless homemakers are represented by a handful in the headlines.
Fortunately, we have fiction, such as the novels of Tom Perrotta, to reflect another reality. Perrotta is the author of seven books, including Election and Little Children, which became award-winning movies, and The Leftovers, published in August 2011. Bad Haircut, a collection of stories, is his first work; The Abstinence Teacher is most recent.
When Little Children was published and then produced as a movie, local book groups and discussion boards saw its similarity to the local suburbs. And no wonder; the movie used the West Orange pool for its summertime scenes. Likewise, The Abstinence Teacher is set at PTA meetings and town soccer fields, familiar suburban territory.
"My book group read both of those books," says Amy Stein of South Orange, "and we could swear that he had been listening in on our phone calls. Or maybe at the pool. What he wrote seemed very true of this community, both in physical descriptions of the place and the characters I thought I almost knew."
However, it is Perrotta's three earliest books that, he told Patch, are most closely based on his New Jersey upbringing and the people he knew growing up. Bad Haircut, a short story collection, Joe College, The Wishbones are deliberately set in New Jersey, with excursions into Manhattan and to Yale. He describes those works as "early, more autobiographical works."
A native of Garwood, who last January was elected to the Kenilworth School District David Brearley High School Hall of Fame, Perrotta took a similar path. He left New Jersey for Yale in 1979. He graduated with a degree in English, and then earned a masters degree in creative writing from Syracuse University.
The landmarks that marked Perrotta's childhood are, he says, "familiar to anyone who grew up there in the 1970s." He recalls Little League, McDonalds, Roma Pizza and Unami Park. The timeline of his life notes many of them; Perrotta notes that he played shortstop for Diamond Expansion in the Garwood Minor League, fueling one of his first life ambitions, professional sports.
In his early teens, Perrotta focused on rock and roll, fodder for The Wishbones, where the main character plays in wedding band. By the end of high school, however, Perrotta had exchanged dreams of sports and music for writing. It was a fortunate choice: "I'm pretty much doing what my teenaged self wanted to do," he explains. Perrotta received an Academy Award nomination for the Little Children screenplay, in addition to a small cameo in the film. (Look for a guy wearing blue robe and shorty pajamas, he notes on his website.)
The New Jersey of The Wishbones is demarked by Route 22 and Overlook Hospital. Characters go on mall dates. Joe College offers life in a "roach coach," one of the hundreds of lunch trucks that pull up at job sites and in bank parking lots every weekday. It's not glamorous, but Perrotta's world is peopled by characters who accept one another's eccentricities, even when they don't make headlines.
Towards the end of The Wishbones, the character Buzzy asks his wife to open a window for him. When she does, puzzled, he lifts their tiny bedroom television set, bought at a garage sale for $35, and pushes it out the window. He had imagined "the TV falling from a great height, shattering on the concrete patio of some California luxury hotel, shards of glass sparkling like little ground stars." But Buzzy's television fell with a dull thud, which was enough.
"There," said the character. "I feel better now."
Likewise, when media images of the Garden State seem nearly incredible, residents can feel better know that our reality is reflected. We can find it in fiction.