January 10: “Nine Inches” by Tom Perrotta

Double digits! I’m not sure if I have any detractors out there, but just in case, those of you who didn’t think I’m make it ten days can go suck some wood pulp. Here I am, using two numbers to indicate how many posts I’ve made. I want to thank my family for making this possible, Steve Jobs for inventing this Apple computer I’m typing on, you fans for reading, and my parents for giving me eyes and fingers. Oh, and the authors of the stories, too. They probably have something to do with it.

For the big one-oh, I’m writing about Tom Perrotta’s story “Nine Inches” from his 2013 collection of the same name. It’s another title story, but I couldn’t help myself, as I was curious upon reading the title what it meant, what it stood for, and I’m glad I did. Turns out that nine inches is a metaphor for the story, and perhaps the whole book, so it’s nice to get hold of the theme so early into my foray.

I’ve read some Tom Perrotta before, a couple of stories (one from this book, “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face”), his novel Election, and remember his edition of Best American Short Stories, the one he edited in 2012, being particularly good. I’ve also seen the films Election and Little Children and think they’re excellent movies, some of the best film adaptations of contemporary literary works out there. I also started The Leftovers during the first season, but then was out of town for a long stretch, away from HBO, and have never caught up; from all I hear, that show has become one of the best on TV. Perrotta is a known quantity.

No surprise, Perrotta has a couple of things he does well. In the works that I’ve mentioned, he favors that protagonist who has hit a wall: He or she is in his or her thirties, has settled into his or her life in suburbia, a nuclear family, but realizes how unhappy he or she is, how disappointed and restless. Because they’re still young—as many years ahead as behind—it’s become unbearable to think that this is the American dream, what they’ve been sold, what they’ll have to endure. The teacher in Election, the housewife in Little Children, they find angst and wanderlust in the salad days, the time they should be filling the mantle with photographs and their 401Ks with cash. If they’re living the American Dream, they don’t want to do so for fifty more years. It’s a fate worse than seeing it all fall apart.

The protagonist of “Nine Inches” could be the prototype. His name is Ethan (BTW, this might be the first time, in ten blog posts, I’ve come across a protagonist with a name. Writers, WTF?) and he’s a middle school teacher with a wife, a mortgage, a kid, and another on the way. He’s not only set, he’s locked in. Trapped. If you would have asked Ethan in college what he wanted out of life, he would have said that he wanted a teaching job in a nice suburban school (Daniel Webster Middle School—what’s the symbolism there, I wonder?), a wife, kids. If you go to college to study intermediate education, that’s what you want, right? But Ethan’s only thirty-two, and doing the math, it’s thirty-five more years to reasonable retirement age (or, seventeen until his district forces him out). He’s ten years out of college, a baby five months in the womb, but he’s filled with regret, happy to chaperon a school dance so he can get out of the house. These are Perrotta’s protagonists, not the starving, the addicted, or the evil, just normal, conventionally successful people, bored and wanting to fuck someone they’re not supposed to.

The title comes from Ethan’s middle school’s rule that says students much stay nine inches apart when dancing—there’s been an incident—and he actually has a nine-inch tape measure in his pocket. Along for the ride are fellow chaperons—a couple of teachers and a local cop—all of whom regard the rules with varying degrees of seriousness. It’s those variations that force the conflict. The sweetest point of the story comes when Ethan has to break up a couple of too-close teens, but can’t find it in him, recognizing their blissful moment as perhaps the most important of their lives. He realizes even this isn’t his choice, that he has to suck the joy out of these kids lives as they joy’s been sucked out of his.

Perrotta’s going for something with this nine inches, this deliberate distance that people must put between themselves. It’s what’s happening here in “Nine Inches,” a necessity to keep people at arms’ length, be it literally or emotionally; nothing good happens when you get too close. What a theme for a story, and I’m guessing this collection, hence his making it the title story. Where would we all be if we had someone tap us on the shoulder when we got too close, telling us it was against the rules?

I like Tom Perrotta’s character-driven fiction, the predicaments he puts people in, the levels of depravity and regret he’s willing to describe for our entertainment. It seems simple, taking average people, making them do bad things, but Perrotta is the master of it, finding the right balance of sympathy and discomfort. If his heroes were slashers, I wouldn’t cover my eyes any more, wary of what horrors these people will cause next.

Tom Perrotta