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Originally published Sunday, September 22, 2013 at 4:04 AM

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Perrotta’s “Nine Inches”: dark tales of mundane lives upended

Tom Perrotta’s new story collection “Nine Inches” showcases the author’s subversive point of view, though humor is mostly lacking in 10 stories of mundane lives disrupted.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Nine Inches”

by Tom Perrotta

St. Martin’s Press, 256 pp., $25.99

In “Nine Inches,” a collection of 10 short stories by Tom Perrotta, even when things go right — your SAT score rocks, your son becomes a surgeon — things somehow wind up wrong.

And in most of these stories, things don’t go right to begin with.

Perrotta, the wonderfully subversive novelist known for “Election,” “The Leftovers” and other dark takes on the suburbs, packs his latest with tales of mundanity disrupted. These are stories of monsters in the closet, of what happens when fortune yells, “Boo!” at a suburban husband, wife or child in dull search of the American dream.

A high-school student with a killer transcript gets turned down by every college he applies to.

A teacher’s search of her students’ online teacher evaluations turns up an unpleasant surprise.

A father, wanting a son to play catch with, gets “an artistic, dreamy kid with long eyelashes and delicate features” who likes to play with dolls.

Perrotta gives us stories of unraveling and doubt, of people who thought they were walking the path they were expected to walk — they strive, they marry, they volunteer — only to have the ground shift underneath them.

The dark humor that Perrotta weaves through much of his work is mostly absent here. These stories are plain dark. Good luck finding in these pages anything resembling a happy marriage. What you find is betrayal and abandonment. Or a young man who settled. Or an old man whose wife is not the woman he thought she was.

Perrotta takes settings that seem innocent enough — a game, a dance, a visit from the grandkids — and suffuses them with melancholia.

“The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” — perhaps the book’s most affecting story — opens on a Little League diamond.

But this is no field of dreams, no wistful homage to the bonds between father and son. On this field there’s more stress than fun. Secret resentments fester, scores get settled, and a father comes to terms with the damage that he’s done.

In this story, as in several others, there’s a moment of paralysis that gives way to a difficult choice. And in this story, as in several others, a character who has done wrong gets to explain — or try to, anyway. Perrotta doesn’t run from ambiguity. He embraces it.

Individually, just about every one of these stories works. But they’re better read with breaks between.

Strung together, the episodes of misfortune and self-pity pile so high that it’s like country music for the suburban set, with “my wife left me and took the truck and dog” replaced with “I’ve got a master’s degree in history but that doesn’t bring me satisfaction.”

One story that doesn’t work happens to be the longest; “One-Four-Five” merges bland reflection — music heals — with implausible turns and dialogue. (Even over drinks, conversation with a co-worker one hardly knows is unlikely to begin with graphic tales of threeways past.)

But the other stories will stick with you while dispelling any thought of the grass being greener over yon white-picket fence.


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