Review: Tom Perrotta’s Election

With a sincere comic sense for the virtues and vices of his characters, Tom Perrotta, crafts a believable story about high school and the absurd politics that govern life even after the diploma in “Election.” Characters focus on the events leading to the pinnacle of a school scandal, and though each one has irrational behaviors that seem ridiculous, anyone who has been through high school knows this story is nothing less than the melodramatic reality of secondary education.

Rather than give the reader one character’s reference of events, he chooses to explore the thoughts and reactions of others, and the most interesting interactions and observations develop as each character attempts to decode the actions of another.
“Election’s” series of first-person narrative entries are like tell-all confessionals in which the reader, and the character, has the opportunity to view definitive moments with perfect, hindsight vision.

Mr. M, a once enthusiastic teacher at Winwood, begins his story with an assertion that all he ever wanted was to teach, and shaping curious young minds in a confusing world fulfilled him. Yet, as he becomes bored and rebellious against the monotony of his adult life, several unfortunate decisions threaten his marriage and career.

Perrotta’s easy style speaks and allows the reader to hear the character’s troubled, confused voice, as he does often with Mr. M.

“Desolation gave way to numbness as I drove, and the numbness began to feel oddly like optimism. I headed south on the Parkway for about an hour, stopped at a diner, then turned around and headed back. It’s hard to imagine at this remove, but by the time I pulled into Sherry’s driveway around ten o’clock, I was fairly certain we’d end up spending the night together. She’d have to come home at some point, I reasoned, and when she did, she’d have to let me in.”

The flow of unpretentious confessions, all written in a similar fashion, keeps the story moving.

As the year trudges along at the fictional New Jersey school of Winwood, the student government elections approach, and Mr. M convinces the popular yet plain Paul Warren to run for president. A simple act of mentoring begins a disastrous series of events, and it becomes clear that the book cover’s blurred picture of a yellow Geo Metro convertible foreshadows the demise of Mr. M.

A vivacious and precocious teenager, Tracy Flick, sets her sights on political stardom both in and out of high school, a goal that even a foiled love affair with a teacher cannot stop. Because her natural instinct is to destroy any obstacle in her way, she is the easy target of her peers’ hatred, but her position as a friendless, over-worked young girl can evoke sympathy.

Once Paul enters the race for president, she realizes the competition is fiercer than she expected. And Paul’s sister, Tammy, an off-beat young woman whose love interest has been stolen away by her brother, decides to run.

In Mr. M’s personal life, he begins a short-lived, extra-marital affair, and everything falls apart from there. He focuses his contempt on Tracy, tampers with the election and ends up resigning.

The ending, though, is disappointing and out-of-step with the rest of the novel. It is almost touching that after everything Mr. M goes through, he can forgive and forget, but it seems unlikely that a man who shows his type of impulsive and sometimes vengeful behavior could reconcile with the girl who dragged down his career. And Tracy is a less likely candidate for resolve. For all of her plotting, planning and head-strong ambition, her character is expected to be just as relentless with revenge as she is with everything else.

Aside from some qualms with the finale, Perrotta effectively takes a national, democratic phenomena and shrinks it down to high school size, complete with affairs and scandals. At the same time, he illustrates the nature of adolescence with the hierarchy of high school and merges it with real events to show that nothing really changes after high school.

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