Book Review: "Tracy Flick Can't Win" by Tom Perrotta

TRACY FLICK CAN’T WIN By Tom Perrotta 259 pages. Scribner. $27. Tom Perrotta’s characters commit routine moral crimes: they betray th...

By Tom Perrotta
259 pages. Scribner. $27.

Tom Perrotta’s characters commit routine moral crimes: they betray their spouses, treat their friends meanly, send inappropriate text messages, disrespect their parents, plot to overthrow their rivals. These people aren’t serial killers or Marvel villains; their sins are prosaic. Twenty years ago, Us Weekly magazine ran an article titled “Stars – They’re Just Like Us!” which depicted celebrities buying dog food or waiting for luggage at the airport. You can’t read a novel like “Leftovers” Where “Mrs. Fletcher” without a similar thought crossing your mind: “The characters of Tom Perrotta – They are like us!”

Perrotta’s new novel has a title of a now familiar sort: the main character’s full name, plus a statement that ironically sums up the contents of the book. Think “Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine” or “Florence Adler is swimming forever” or “Lorna Mott is coming home”. And now “Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” which is better than those books and even more piercing than its predecessor, “Election” (1998)the novel that introduced us to the unbreakable Tracy Flick.

Tracy was immortalized by Reese Witherspoon in the 1999 film adaptation of Alexander Payne’s novel. Witherspoon, who incidentally was featured in “Stars – They’re Just Like Us!” pumping money into a parking meter, yielded one of the best comedic performances of the decade. Never has the nostril flared out with more virtuosity. But the film deviated significantly from the source material. Payne changed the setting from New Jersey to Nebraska, rewrote the ending, and made Tracy a demon.

The new book begins at the heart of #MeToo. Powerful men turn out to be sleazeballs, and Tracy, now in her forties with a daughter, wonders if she misjudged her own past. In “Election”, she had an “affair” with a high school teacher. Until recently, she refused to call herself a victim. But as stories of high-achieving young women being exploited by mentors and bosses pile up in the news, her own narrative is starting to feel, in her words, “a little fragile.”

The teacher, Mr. Dexter, has now died of prostate cancer, and Tracy is vice-principal at a suburban high school. You wouldn’t think she’d end up as a deputy anything (rather than sheriff), but there were mitigating factors. When her mother fell ill, she dropped out of law school and returned home. Instead of pursuing justice as a lawyer or saving lives as a doctor or doing nothing as a senator, she struggles in a cramped office managing lockers and complaints about cafeteria food.

As in “Election”, this novel revolves around a competition. Tracy’s boss is about to retire and Tracy must beat out other candidates to take on the job of manager. As in the student election from the previous book, Tracy feels she deserves the job. And by every quantifiable measure, it does. But when a superintendent asks her why she thinks she’s ready for the job, she makes the mistake of telling the truth: “I paid my dues.

Advancement in most white-collar jobs is less about actual skill and more about convincing those in power that you’re competent, even if you’re not. That, and possessing a quality related to likability but not identical to it – the quality of being someone others want to see succeed. Tracy passes the skill test with flying colors; but no one wants her to move up the ladder.

Why? This is the question that propelled “the election”. Tracy was hardly a threat to the high school food chain. She was lonely and insecure, plagued by stomach problems and insomnia. She was burning with jealousy when she saw a pair of students kissing “as if they were feeding on each other’s tongues”. She baked cupcakes for people who wouldn’t bother signing her yearbook. In other words: an underdog cursed, for some reason, to be cast as an infuriating alpha who needed to be put down.

Credit…Beowulf Sheehan

In her sequel, Perrotta elaborates on the case of Tracy’s mistaken identity. Do people (mostly men, but a few women) hate her because of…misogyny? Or is it because they can’t help punishing a person who absurdly stubbornly believes that life should be fair? Or is it because Tracy, for all her political ambitions, still fails to grasp the most important political skill of all, which is the gift of making others feel good about themselves?

In middle age, Tracy’s optimism (or naivety) is unchanged. there are two ways to look at this. Perhaps it’s a credit to her integrity that she wasn’t crushed into submission. It is perhaps absurd that she refuses, after all this time, to respect the rules of the game. Even if the game is rigged. Even though she shouldn’t have to play it.

Perrotta weaves through this drama in many directions. Each chapter of “Election” was a first-person account of one of the six characters. The new book is divided between chapters like this and sections written in the near third person. The cast includes a former athlete, a wealthy technician, a long-suffering administrator, two students, and the school principal. All are exquisitely drawn.

There’s Jack Weede, Tracy’s boss, who remembers the golden days when college students smoked Marlboros in bathrooms, beat up gay kids, and verbally rated girls on a scale of 1 to 10. His perspective on #MeToo: “It’s like the French Revolution. They had a just cause, but they got a little overzealous with the guillotine.

There’s Kyle Dorfman, the tech guy, who made his fortune in Silicon Valley with a dumb app, then returned home to become head of the school board. “When I call myself a visionary, I don’t mean that in a grandiose way,” he says, before pointing out a quixotic desire to build a “Hall of Fame” featuring the school’s alumni for the mostly unimpressive. Eight months later, he is already frustrated with the board’s “resistance to change and creative disruption”. Few novelists are better than Perrotta at conveying the full spectrum of human illusion.

Which brings us back to Tracy. Will our heroine, after being pounded with 20 years of lemons, continue to make lemonade that no one wants to drink? Or will she go crazy and blow up the system? Perrotta branches off in an ingenious third direction. Life comes suddenly, and surprisingly, to match the intensity of Tracy’s vision of it.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Book Review: "Tracy Flick Can't Win" by Tom Perrotta
Book Review: "Tracy Flick Can't Win" by Tom Perrotta
Newsrust - US Top News
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