Another perfectly pitched, subversively hilarious chronicle of prolonged adolescence from the author of, most recently, Election (1998).
If Salinger’s Holden Caulfield had hit the books a bit more assiduously, and gotten out more, he might have turned into this story’s engaging (if not fully engaged) narrator and protagonist Danny: an overachieving Italian-American kid from (Perrotta’s chosen fictional turf) suburban New Jersey who finds himself at Yale as a junior English major, mired in the tricky coils of encroaching adulthood, five-alarm sexual confusion, and George Eliot’s demandingly mandarin Middlemarch. Danny’s blithe, slightly aslant wisecracking sensibility is evoked in dozens of subtly rib-tickling one-liners (he recalls an anticipated sexual conquest thusly: “I remember feeling like Wordsworth on the verge of a sublime experience”). Perrotta’s episodic plot veers amiably among Danny’s politely wary relationships with his several dorm-mates (the most memorable of whom, the unfocussed Max, is “studying” the lives of presidential assassins); the girl he left back home, who shows up with a surprise announcement (the expected one, and no surprise to the reader); and the goonlike “Lunch Monsters,” who not-so-subtly suggest that his father’s lunch-truck (the “Roach Coach,” which Danny mans during vacation breaks and summers) pull out of “their” territory. It all zips along in ineffably reader-friendly fashion, rising to splendid comic heights in such neat sequences as a wild campus party (where revelers are “getting down with the grim determination of pioneers”), a remembered high-school encounter with the dreaded bully known as “Psycho Midget,” and the marvelous finale, in which varied promising and doom-laden intimations of Danny’s uncertain future are deftly incarnated.
No other contemporary novelist offers such a beguiling take on the evasive-action tactics of horny, good-natured, small-town Peter Pans who, whether they realize it or not, really don’t want to ever grow up. Joe College almost makes you wish you could relive the whole godawful mess all over again.