Tracy Flick Returns

A tremendously enjoyable (and surprising) sequel to ‘Election’ from Tom Perotta

Tracy Flick. Remember her?

If you read Tom Perrotta’s novel, Election, in 1998 that’s where you first met her. Though it’s possible–and more likely– that you met her the following year as Reese Witherspoon in the movie adaptation directed by Alexander Payne.

Tracy is back (in print) in the pre-pandemic year of 2018 and she’s now the assistant principal at Green Meadow High School, the very spot of her manipulative maneuvering and ultimate humiliation back in 1998.

So, high school is, once again, the primary setting in Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Perrotta’s eighth and current novel.

Tracy Flick Can't Win
‘Tracy Flick Can’t Win’, by Tom Perotta.

To set the scene: Tracy is all grown up. Two decades down the line she’s earned a Ph.D. and has a good job; she’s a divorcee and a single mother; she’s also become a caretaker for her ailing mother. She’s still a striver. Not bad, maybe. But not all she could have been. She simultaneously holds in her head the idea that she’s a success and a failure.

Tracy Flick Can’t Win works as both a sequel and a standalone. It adds more depth if you know the full-backstory, but Perrotta sprinkles enough salient information in so that you won’t feel left out of a history lesson. Like Election, the issues raised are ones that may surface in high school, both for the kids and for the adults (those living in the town and those coming back for a Hall of Fame ceremony), but have real world and beyond implications. When I spoke with Perrotta, he called his high school “a microcosm of the wider world. All the things that dominate our national conversation will be found in this very ordinary place on any given day.”

Here’s a short list of the issues Perrotta tosses at us in the course of 257 pages:

CTE (football-related brain damage), racism, lust, casual sex and recriminations thereof, foot fetishes, pregnancy, a teen coming out as lesbian, the modern-day pronoun choice of they/them, #MeToo, careerism, envy, retirement, dementia and the futility of life itself.

That final thought comes near the end of the book as Tracy recites Shelley’s “Ozymandias” poem at the Hall of Fame ceremony dinner and thinks, “There’s no such thing as immortality; all our striving is in vain. In the end, we’ll all be forgotten, the winners and the losers alike.”

True dat.

But while we (they) muddle through our lives, well, Perrotta’s got a lot to say about that muddling. The plot, as it were, is as trivial as the one in Election. (Not to the characters, maybe, but to us.) Will Tracy win the election? Who gets into the Hall of Fame? Do you really give a damn who became class president? Or care who gets to be in some spurious Hall of Fame?

Probably not, but both those concerns almost beside the point.

An alumnus named Kyle Dorfman, who’s made a pile of dough as a west coast app-creation guy, created the Hall of Fame. Mr. Big come back home to build an ugly-ass mansion and to humble-gloat and strut his stuff. The school board figures the infusion of cash he’s promising can only help the school, even if no one is that enthusiastic about this Hall of Fame thing.

The writer Tom Perrotta (USA), New York, New York, September 23, 2021. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

It’s a scramble, even, to find worthy candidates. Does the guy who owns auto dealerships make the cut? A late unsuccessful novelist? A late Gold Star Vietnam Veteran? The internet influencer?

Perrotta uses bite-sized chapters and multiple, self-centered narrators to tell the story, pretty much. It’s the same narrative device as Election. While Tracy is the main protagonist, others have stories to tell. Among them: Jack Weede, her retiring boss, a high school principal with a secret; his stuff; Lily Chu, a lesbian high schooler-in-love-for-the-first-time; and Nate Cleary, a high-school age videographer.

The other key player is Vito Falcone, a former star quarterback in high school and a one-time NFL player. Vito is the obvious first choice for the Hall of Fame. Vito has also made a mess of his life. Injury cut short his promising pro career. He’s had loads of girl trouble.

He’s in AA and has reached the ninth step, trying (vaguely) to make amends to those he did wrong. Those he harmed as an adult, and now (since he’s in the area) those he harmed as a teen, even though his sponsor said not to concern himself so much with that aspect of the damage. But, given that he’s coming back to the arena of his teen misbehavior, he’s doing the duty and you can expect some fireworks among those he screwed over or those close to those he screwed over.

Perrotta’s method of pinballing among characters creates a rhythm of surprise. You’re never quite sure who’s going to jump in and pop up with their tale. In some ways, they’re all taking inventory of their lives – the mid-life guys and gals in particular – looking back at what might have been and what is now. The kids in high school? They’re introspective, too, but just starting to shape their future, in a world where hormones run rampant and high school sports is still an important factor.

As one character isn’t aware of another’s thoughts, it’s the reader whose job it is to stitch things together, makes judgments as to who to like and who not. And that’s always shifting. Someone may be unlikable upon introduction, but further in we may learn why they’re unlikable. I gotta say, too: Perrotta’s not trying to be James Patterson, but the short-ish. chapter-like bursts are ideal for a short attention-span world. Pick it up, read, put it down. Do something. Repeat process.

In Tracy Flick, Perrotta sprinkles the drama with comedic and satirical elements – there’s a lotta hot-button topics on the plate – but the action, so to speak, coasts along a relatively flat line … until it doesn’t. It has what, truthfully, you must call a shock ending, a big wrench of the plot line. First thought: Where did this come from? Second thought: Ah, yes, Perotta foreshadowed it. When it comes, it hits you like a hot blast.

You’re left with a big “Holy shit!” Then, there’s a coda. And you think back to the journey that brought us to these points and, almost sadly, say goodbye to people with whom you’ve spent quality time.

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan wrote about pop music and culture for the Boston Globe from 1979-2005 and currently is doing the same for WBUR’s ARTery and Rock and Roll Globe among other websites and outlets.

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