A Stover for Our Time

Just as every high school student in America knows a Tracy Flick,
the painfully overachieving protagonist from Tom Perrotta’s novel
Election, every Yalie knows a Kristin Willard. She is the "prep
school girl from Greenwich, a long-limbed beauty with an overactive
social conscience" who works in the Branford Dining Hall
with Danny, the working-class hero of Perrotta’s latest book,
Joe College. Kristin Willard is the first of many eerily familiar
characters that Perrotta, himself a Yale graduate and English
instructor at Harvard, offers throughout the novel. Despite
certain failings, Perrotta pulls off the best fictional rendering
of modern Yale in recent memory.
The novel begins and ends in a few tumultuous weeks during the
spring semester of 1982. Danny, a feckless junior English major,
passes his days trudging through Middlemarch and complaining
bitterly about his reading even though he doesn’t mean a word
of it. Like his fellow Yale weenies, he is dumbfounded by the
centrality of singing groups to campus life and constantly questions
the veracity of rumors about the sex everyone is having in CCL.
At Naples, he "jockeys for position among the mob of ex-National
Merit Scholars and former student council presidents" who
wave "plastic plates in the air like extras in a movie about
the Depression."
Though Danny is comfortable in the bizarre universe that is Yale-where
Whiffenpoofs spontaneously break into song in stairwells and
where he is surrounded by the likes of classmate Jodie Foster-he
is torn between his collegiate home and his working-class roots
in an Italian New Jersey neighborhood. At Yale, he "plays
up the working-class angle," which his wealthier friends
find "vaguely exotic." He tells chivalrous tales of
his exploits aboard the Roach Coach (so named because of the
grinning cockroach on the passenger door), the lunch truck his
father operates at various office parking lots and construction
sites throughout the Garden State.
At the same time, though, he downplays his relationship with
Cindy, the secretary with whom he had a more-than-a-fling the
previous summer. He prefers to cavort around campus with Polly,
a fellow writer for Reality, the campus literary magazine "devoted
to everything but college, [a magazine] that focused on exploited
workers, violent crime, urban poverty, and moral squalor."
The cover of the first issue features a picture of a dog defecating,
and the magazine refuses to accommodate any "sonnets about
menstruation" or "wacky stories about summer jobs."
Despite his best efforts, Danny’s affection for Polly goes mostly
unrequited: She is engaged in a torrid, dramatic, on-again-off-again
relationship with Peter Preston, a young professor in the English
department.
Danny’s relationships with Cindy and Polly highlight the tension
between the two worlds in which our hero lives. At school, Danny’s
women of choice "favored baggy sweaters and objected to
makeup on political grounds." Cindy, though, "chewed
Juicy Fruit, painted her nails, and didn’t skimp on the eyeshadow."
Her appeal, therefore, is less as a girlfriend than "as
a potential anecdote, a puzzling and amusing story I would share
with my roommates in one of those hilarious late-night conversations
that I missed so much when I was away from college." Danny
is honest with himself and with the reader, but rarely, if ever,
with the people who surround him.
The greatest strength of the novel is Danny’s relentless candor,
his searing introspection and self-criticism. Perrotta has a
real gift for capturing the idiosyncratic Yale undergraduate
experience in all its glorious self-discovery and self-loathing.
He understands the strange interpersonal dynamics of late bloomers
who must prove their mettle by saying things like, "You
ever try to read George Eliot stoned?" And he understands
how the largest steps toward maturity and autonomy are often
taken on the least dangerous roads. For example, after months
of mockery and pressure from his Korean roommate Sang, Danny
finally decides to taste kimchi, the spicy Korean cabbage delicacy.
With all the bravado of a knight about to go into battle, Danny
downs a tiny piece of the briny cabbage. All in his presence
approvingly proclaim that he has lost his "kimchi virginity."
As Danny matures, his acts of bravery increase in their intensity.
When he returns home for spring break, he must once again take
the helm of the Roach Coach because his father is bedridden,
recovering from a long-overdue hemorrhoid operation. A family
of bullies-the Lunch Monsters, led by Vito Meatballs-has invaded
the town and intends to take over Danny’s and all the other lunch
truck operators’ businesses. When one of Vito’s henchmen stops
Danny at a traffic light and tells him not to show up for work
the next day, Danny promptly tells him to "fuck off."
At the warehouse where all the truck operators pick up their
provisions for the day, Fat Teddy and Pete the Polack, men three
times Danny’s age, inform him that "he’s got balls."
But this bravado does not easily translate into the emotional
bravery he needs to deal successfully with either of his love
interests. Perrotta does a solid job of exploring the intricacies
of Danny’s double life, in which small successes are coupled
with much greater setbacks. As things begin to improve with Polly,
Cindy announces that she is pregnant with Danny’s child, and
Danny effectively loses both women. Individual crises do not
destroy Danny, but each teaches him a small lesson that contributes
to his discovery of who he is, what he wants, and how he fits
into one or both of the worlds he inhabits.
As Danny makes his journey from inexperienced 20-year old to
seasoned 20-year old, it is the people around him who motivate,
enable, and demand the transition. In order to ensure that the
transition is believable, Perrotta treats everyone fairly, from
Lorelei, the hapless New Haven high school student who works
with Danny in the dining hall, to Matt, the son of a gm executive
who tells everyone his father is a car salesman. Throughout the
novel Perrotta also sprinkles characters familiar to anyone who
has spent some time at Yale: the American Studies graduate student
willing to advise Danny’s friend on an independent study of presidential
assassins and their pop culture appeal, the neighbor who invites
friends over to party on his "conceptual patio," and
the conservative Yale Daily News columnist who laments the loss
of tradition at fair olde Yale.
Joe College, however, is far from perfect. Perrotta does not
always avoid facile characterization, and several characters
are flat and barely believable. Cindy’s mother is almost too
perfectly pitiful as the ex-stripper, ex-junky schizophrenic,
and Nick is the always-cursing, belligerent-dining-hall-worker
everyman. Without the least bit of irony, Perrotta envisions
a sort of class utopia where left-leaning, bourgeois Yalies and
real live working-class folks get along and might even learn
a little bit from each other. In addition, the turns and endings
of many plot lines are absurdly simple and convenient. The appearance
of an erstwhile boyfriend itching to be a father solves Cindy’s
pregnancy problem and an incident of plagiarism is neatly covered
up.
Despite its faults, Joe College is a tremendously readable book.
Danny’s humor and candor make him a fantastic narrator while
his teen angst makes him a believable and sympathetic hero. For
those who want to read about the trials of an intelligent and
nobly lost protagonist, the book is entertaining, albeit simplistic.
But for Yale readers who have a prurient interest in seeing their
alma mater in print, the book’s weaknesses are far less important
than the accuracy of most of Perrotta’s descriptions; Joe College
is a captivating portrait of life on this side of Phelps Gate.

 

 

Alan Schoenfeld, a junior in Saybrook
College, is editor-in-chief for
TNJ

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