“Little Children” by Tom Perrotta

A withering take on suburban family life, infidelity and vigilantism from the author of "Election."

Topics: What to Read, Books,

“Jimmy and I started watching that Jim Carrey movie the other night? … I was enjoying it. But fifteen minutes later Jimmy and I were both fast asleep.”

That’s the voice of a suburban mother talking to her playground klatch in Tom Perrotta’s new novel, “Little Children,” and the specificity of that voice is the key to what’s so good about the book. The vagueness of “that Jim Carrey movie”; the statement offered as a tentative question; the fact that the movie is being watched on video rather than in the theater; the inability to keep your interest in even something you enjoy. Taken together, those three sentences distill the essence of harried suburban parents, their social life reduced to the living-room couch, their cultural interests so undefined as to be nonexistent, their energy shot. Chances are if you’re in your 30s or 40s you’ve said things like that, or have friends who’ve said it to you.

“Little Children” is satire, Perrotta’s take on the gnawing dissatisfactions of family life, the tyrannical control small kids exert over their parents (“The young are Germans, one and all,” Leslie Fiedler once said; he should have said, “Toddlers are Germans, one and all”), and the inescapable sense that there is something better out there. But, as you’d expect from a writer who’s shown the generosity Perrotta has, it’s compassionate satire. “Little Children” is a withering take on suburbia but — and this is what differentiates it from all the other withering takes on suburbia — its view is from the inside.

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Shifting effortlessly between points of view in the story of two suburban couples whose lives are upset by infidelity among two of their quartet, and by their own nagging unfulfilled desires, Perrotta gives a sympathetic portrait of being trapped in the good life. He even manages to extend his sympathy to the most despised character in the book, a convicted flasher whose release to live with his mother sends a neighborhood vigilante group into overdrive.

“Little Children” is certainly Perrotta’s most ambitious book. And like most ambitious books it isn’t without its growing pains. For all the empathy we feel for these characters, Perrotta has sacrificed (of necessity, I think) some of the warmth that characterized his last novel, “Joe College” (which may be the best novel about the experience of being young and working-class during the Reagan years that anyone will write). And during some of the plot revelations that change how we think about the characters, you can hear the gears grinding a bit.

But what marks “Little Children” as the work of a satirist is the way Perrotta lures us into taking morally certain positions on some of these characters (a right-wing housewife, the flasher whose life is being made hell by the upright citizens around him) only to pull the rug out from under us, upsetting any potential smugness. What marks him as a compassionate writer is that even at his most pitiless he shows a bone-deep understanding of his characters and a refusal to judge them.

“Little Children” doesn’t have the scorched-earth approach of the British writer Helen Simpson’s book of stories on the same themes, “Getting a Life.” But it is devastating enough and it marks a leap for Perrotta, a suggestion that there may be bigger books inside him. It is also that rarity, a book that understands the mature wisdom of compromise without denying any of the accompanying melancholy.

Our next pick: Forbidden love between the races drives this fast-paced courtroom drama set in apartheid-era South Africa

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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