Book review: Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta

For stories of suburban angst you can’t do much better than Tom Perrotta’s Nine Inches.

The short story collection is comprised of 10 stories, each an engaging vignette of the everyday trials of everyday people. But Perrotta’s storytelling is anything but average. Nine Inches proves that even everyday lives in no-name towns offer good meat for stories under Perrotta’s keen writer’s eye.

It was the strength of Perrotta’s prose that initially hooked me. Clear, straightforward and unaffected, the writing in this book dazzles with its colloquial feel, instead of overwrought poetic statements. Many of the stories are told in the first person, making them feel as though the narrator is simply chatting with readers. Characters regale readers with stories as varied as how teenaged Donald’s boring pizza delivery job turns into a marijuana delivery business and why Rose, a lonely senior lady, readily enters a local cult.

Nine Inches’ dialogue is spot on. Often a writer’s disconnect or unfamiliarity with a particular demographic pops up in how certain characters speak: say, teenagers using slang that might have been current in the ’90s, but now just sounds like a middle-aged man trying too hard. Perrotta sidesteps this particular pitfall. Rarely, when I read, did characters’ dialogue sound fake or stereotyped. It was utterly believable and helped ground me in the stories and characters even more.

The excellent dialogue demonstrates not only Perrotta’s writing chops, but also the second main strength of Nine Inches: the characters. Perrotta populates his stories with an eclectic cast with a variety of backgrounds, mindsets and personalities. The characters run the gamut, from Vicki, the high school chemistry teacher who confronts a student over her review, to Josh, a high school student whose part-time job is impersonating and writing SATs for graduating students. The vast majority of these, both protagonists and supporting cast alike, are fully fleshed out, as Perrotta ably captures the inner lives of millennials and octogenarians alike.

My one critique, however, is a few instances where Perrotta veers towards cliché. For example, in the story “One-Four-Five,” Dr. Rick Sims embodies the quintessential depressed divorcé who is unable to handle housework or personal hygiene when his wife leaves him. The appearance of these predictable tropes was a disappointing addition to an otherwise engrossing set of characters. Thankfully, in 10 stories there are only a few of these one-dimensional characters.

For all their differences, the people in Perrotta’s stories are linked by a common vein: yearning. Much of the characters’ believability stems from their motives — whether it’s a desire for a drunk make-out session with a crush, or the wish to reconcile with a dead neighbour, each of the protagonists is driven by a quiet desperation for fulfilment.

Indeed, Nine Inches is at its core a study of want: why people want, what people will do to fulfil their wants and how people continue on when their wants are utterly quashed.