The novelist Tom Perrotta is 60 years old, a long-married father of two grown children, and a resident of suburban Belmont, Massachusetts. He’s an uncool man at an uncool age living in an uncool town. He has wasted no time with high-profile literary feuds. He has punched nobody, has neither canceled nor been canceled, and doesn’t bother with social media. (The only Tom Perrotta on Twitter is the late, very good tennis journalist.)
Rather, he works. The son of a mailman, Perrotta has his father’s rain-or-shine discipline, and it shows; his new novel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, a sort of sequel to his classic Election, is his 10th book in 28 years. More than any other contemporary writer, he has taken to heart Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
As Tracy Flick Can’t Win proves once more, Perrotta is as responsible for the edgier, savvier side of popular culture as any 10 TikTok superstars combined. One of the shortest novels you’ll come across this year, it’s a four-hour read that manages to be a funny, paradoxically optimistic look at repressed trauma, toxic masculinity, and even the absurdity of large fortunes derived from hackneyed smartphone apps. It’s the present moment served between two covers, a tasty literary sammie.
But if Perrotta’s career to date is any indication, most people won’t discover this delicious offering until it hits the screen. Like Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler and The Queen’s Gambit, Perrotta is an under-known talent whose books give us the movies and TV we love. His novels have been the basis of two HBO series, The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher, and two of the best screen adaptations of the past quarter century: Todd Field’s Little Children, from 2006, and Alexander Payne’s 1999 film, Election.
Perrotta is an actor’s author. Kathryn Hahn will forever be Mrs. Fletcher, just as Ann Dowd will always be the chain-smoking cult leader of The Leftovers. And then, from the film Election, there is Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, the officious, ambitious high-school junior nearly cheated out of the student-council presidency—a portrayal so memorable that it has surely stunted Witherspoon’s acting career. Sometimes a great actor outdoes herself, so we can’t see her as anyone but her best character. Witherspoon is Tracy the way Jeremy Piven is Ari Gold.
But whereas Ari Gold, the misogynist film agent with a heart of gold, feels dated, Tracy Flick does not—a fact that owes as much to Perrotta’s extraordinary writing as to Witherspoon’s performance. Election, published in 1998, is told from multiple points of view, including those of Tracy, her two opponents in the student-council race, her social-studies teacher, and the other teacher, the one who exploits her for sex. She is loathed for her ambition and for her victimhood. Perrotta extended to this girl recognition, not just of her pain but of the complexity—she remains damned hard to like—that a great literary character demands.
So I was not surprised Perrotta had decided to revisit Flick. But I was surprised to learn, when I sat with him on his porch not long ago, that he had not planned to bring her back, that Tracy Flick Can’t Win started out Flick-less.
“Tracy was the last element,” Perrotta told me. “What I really thought I was writing was Vito Falcone’s story.” In the novel, Vito is the best-known alumnus of the high school where Tracy is now the assistant principal. Two decades on, Flick is once again trying to ascend—no longer to student-council president but to principal—and once again she has to manage, suffer, and overcome a bevy of entitled men. Vito, a star gridder and all-around asshole from the team’s glory days, played just enough years of pro ball to now be in the early stages of dementia. Fellow alumnus Kyle Dorfman, a garden-variety dot-com bro who has returned to throw money around his old town, wants to anoint Vito for the school’s new alumni Hall of Fame, which Kyle is funding; it’s a tendentious, bigfooting demand, and the ensuing small-town drama complicates Tracy’s candidacy for the vacant principal’s job.
Despite Tracy’s return, Tracy Flick Can’t Win really is the story of Vito, and of men like him, who turn youthful luck and privilege into middle-aged power, and thus make all stories about themselves. “I have just been kind of fascinated for years with these football players, who had been like the kings of my world—you get, like, Herschel Walker and Tommy Tuberville,” Perrotta said, mentioning two of the many football icons who have slithered into politics. “They represent that old hierarchy that got toppled, the alpha male. Trump was never an athlete, but he reveres great athletes, and he probably lies about his athletic history. That world, that I think conservatives want to re-install, just puts the traditional alpha male at the top. And the football player, at least in the world I grew up in, was the top of that world.”
Perrotta grew up in Garwood, New Jersey, a working-class town where, he said, some realtors refused to show houses to Black people. His mother, a secretary, had big aspirations for her children, who all left for college. But Perrotta keeps up with old friends. “I’m on Facebook with all these people I grew up with,” Perrotta said. “They’re Trumpers, and they’re so upset with the idea that these Black Lives Matter people are talking about systemic racism. And I just want to say, ‘Look, we grew up in a town where Black people weren’t allowed to live!’”
When Perrotta talks about racism, or misogyny, or just plain meanness, it’s with a rueful grimace, not a snarl; one never gets the feeling that he thinks he’s better than other people, and that includes his own creations. Among the characters whom he refuses to condescend to: the child molester in Little Children, the cult leader in The Leftovers, the alcoholic wedding-band musician in The Wishbones, and numerous adulterers and pornography addicts (of both sexes). An attentive reader ends up feeling bad for all of them. And there’s no classism, not even of the silent kind that pervades so many novels, the assumption that anyone interesting is either rich or exotically poor. He’s a poet of the original suburbia, not Cheever’s Westchester or Updike’s Tarbox, where “middle class” actually means rich, but the Levittown kind, the one you moved to because a quarter acre seemed like all the land in the world.
In that world, however, the uppity girl is always taught her place. I mentioned to Perrotta that Tracy seemed to me the prototype for many other female characters who were mocked, by life and by everyone around them, for striving too visibly. I said that I couldn’t watch Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, on Parks and Recreation, without seeing Tracy. “I know,” he laughed, “and same with Lea Michele’s character on Glee. And Glee had a lot of Election in it.”
In a world hostile to the student-council hack, the high-school quarterback is king. Perrotta was haunted by articles he read about what lay in store for these golden boys who peaked young. “There’s something so poignant about these guys with those bodies, that courage and confidence—all those things—and then suddenly they were like old men who didn’t know where they were,” Perrotta said. “There just seemed something really poignant about that.” He started to write the story of that man, and, as Perrotta himself had just been selected for the Hall of Fame at David Brearley High School, back in New Jersey, he wove in a Hall of Fame plot.
So, at first, no Tracy Flick. “But I kept wanting to do it in the style of Election,” he continued, “with the little oral histories, the multiple narrators. And I kept saying, ‘Why am I doing this? It feels like I’m, you know, plagiarizing myself.’ I didn’t like it.” Apparently, Tracy still had something to say. “That was the only way that it was coming out,” Perrotta said. “And then at some point, I’m like, ‘Tracy wants to be here.’”
She sure does. As in Election, Flick quarterbacks a caffeinated plot in which world events hum in the background; this time around, Elon Musk and Vladimir Putin are both name-checked, in a prescient manuscript completed before anyone thought Twitter would be purchased, or Ukraine invaded. Yet the real stakes are found in high school, for Tracy—who no longer wants to be president, who aspires to rule not the whole land but only the hallways outside her office—and for all of us. As current events, from school shootings to curriculum battles, keep insisting, Perrotta’s humble vision is grander than we knew. He sees the universe in a classroom, the theater of war on a football field.
Mark Oppenheimer is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood and the host of the podcast Unorthodox