In Perrotta’s latest (Nine Inches: Stories, 2013, etc.), a mother and son experience existential tizzies following his departure for college.
As is often the case with Perrotta’s fiction, it takes a while to warm up to his protagonists, who make their first appearances while engaged in off-putting, though wincingly credible, behavior. Brendan Fletcher nurses a hangover while his mother lugs his boxes and suitcases downstairs and packs the van; Eve is both such a patsy and so weirdly controlling that once they get to Berkshire State University, she hangs around Brendan's dorm, “organizing his closet and dresser just the way they were at home,” before her mortified son makes it clear that she should, like, leave. We soon grow fond of Eve, compassionate director of the Haddington Senior Center and, after she signs up for a community college course on “Gender and Society,” the friend and confidante of its transgender professor, Margo Fairchild. Brendan initially seems set to be the same sexist jock in college that he was in high school, until he’s thrown radically off course by a girl named Amber. It’s not such a stretch that she gets him involved in the Autism Awareness Network—his stepbrother from his father’s new marriage is on the spectrum—but getting him to join a protest about Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson is pretty startling. Of course, it’s mostly because Amber is really pretty, but Perrotta invites us to appreciate the slow growth of Brendan’s awareness that there are actually other people in the universe in tandem with Eve’s pleasant discovery of her unexpected sexual appeal for younger men—and a taste for internet porn. Perrotta’s eye for contemporary mores and social details remains razor-sharp; his portraits of the substantial supporting cast are equally keen and tempered with compassion. There are no bad guys here, just fallible human beings trying to grab some happiness. The deliberately inconclusive conclusion points Eve and Brendan toward that goal but doesn’t promise they’ll get there.
More spot-on satire with heart and soul from a uniquely gifted writer.