If “The End of Men” Were a Novel

Tom Perrotta’s latest chronicle of suburban life feels less like a coherent story than an extended think piece about “the way we live now.”

Lisa Larson-Walker

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Tom Perrotta is the acknowledged literary king of the suburbs, producing a long line of critical and popular hits that often—Little Children, Election, The Leftovers—become onscreen gold. The cover of Mrs. Fletcher, his latest, is adorned with blurbs like “Steinbeck of suburbia” and “unshowy chronicler of modern-day America.”

It’s tempting to correlate the literature of the American suburb with the suburbs themselves, and by this measure Perrotta’s work seems almost to track the evolution of American bedroom communities—his pleasant, no-frills style replacing his predecessors’ lyric flights, the deceptively meandering cul-de-sacs of, say, Richard Ford’s prose. There’s a cheerful uniformity to Perrotta’s books, the same way one Panera looks like any of its peers. The novels aren’t fluffy, exactly, but they are extremely accommodating—funny, reasonably sympathetic, mildly redemptive. Their cinematic and TV adaptations seem to find a bite, an emotional heft, that is absent from the typically more comic books that inspired them.

I say Panera rather than its lower-rent fast-food relatives because Perrotta’s suburbs are those of the affluent or affluence-adjacent classes. His families, even when they are working class, are white and live on nice tree-lined streets. There are playgrounds, beloved local eateries. The atmosphere created by his novels is more that of a dense series of connecting burgs than it is of disastrous sprawl encroaching all the way into agricultural flatland.

But the story of the suburbs in the 21st century is one of demographic change. And while Perrotta’s latest doesn’t tackle the thornier issues of urban displacement and housing shortages that have shaped American suburbs in recent years, it does read like an extended gesture on the novelist’s part to recognize the ways that the world—suburban and otherwise—is transforming.

Mrs. Fletcher’s protagonist, Eve, is a divorced empty-nester, alone after her somewhat meatheaded son leaves for college in the first chapter. The director of a senior center, Eve is devoted to her work, but she has “been meaning to start Middlemarch for the past year or so” and needs some stimulus. She signs up for a class called “Gender and Society: A Critical Perspective” at a local community college, where her “fellow students were an impressively diverse bunch … two black men (one of whom turned out to be Nigerian), one black woman, a Chinese immigrant man with an indecipherable accent, a young woman in a Muslim headscarf, one really cute undergraduate boy with a skateboard, and a butch woman in biker gear … ”  The professor is a femme trans woman who was once a well-known men’s college basketball star (she ends up in a romance with one of the students, Dumell, a black veteran who came home from Iraq with PTSD).

In her quest for self-improvement and intellectual fulfillment, Eve spends classroom time sharing “gender histories” with white male classmates who had hoped to sign up for “The Modern Coliseum: Sports in Contemporary Society.” Back home, she embarks on a more private odyssey. Early in the novel, Eve receives an anonymous text message the reader assumes originated from one of Brendan’s new college bros who has gotten hold of his phone in a blackout (“U r my MILF! Send me a naked pic!! I want to cum on those big floppy tits!!!”). Eve, seeking a precise definition for “MILF,” discovers the vast world of online porn. Soon, after enjoying her evening wine and Facebooking (posting extremely lifelike statuses—“Off to college! So happy for my amazing son, Brendan!!!”—to her 221 friends), Eve starts to spend nights trawling a website called Milfateria, a compulsion that leads her to some daring, ethically gray-area experiments in her real-world sex life. (It’s only fair—her husband left her for someone he met on Casual Encounters.)

Meanwhile, Eve’s son, Brendan, oddly narrated in the first person to her close third, is having his own set of awakenings in college, an experience that leaves him unmoored. A popular high school athlete with a B average, Brendan just wants to go to a midlevel college and have fun. He fails to find his groove in a community where “you could ride horses, row crew, play rugby, boycott Israel, learn to juggle or knit.” What common cause has Brendan with “the Quidditch Club officers … the volunteers for the Muslim Student Union,” the “Queer People of Color, Dungeons and Dragons Enthusiasts, Cannabis Reform Coalition, League of Young Conservatives, Bearded Hipster Alliance”? He gets a D on his first writing assignment (“What Does White Privilege Mean to Me?”). His roommate and early partner in fratty hijinks swiftly falls in love with a woman in a wheelchair, undergoing a conversion from casual dickishness that eludes Brendan, who cannot seem to avoid using misogynist slurs while receiving sexual favors. After an encounter with a woman whose beauty lured him into joining the Autism Awareness Network, Brendan ends his college experiment with his photo on a “call-out wall” (along with “CULTURAL APPROPRIATOR,” “EXTREME HOMOPHOBE,” and “GASLIGHTER,” among others). Brendan ends up back home, returned to the nest with his caught-unawares MILF.

Perrotta has written about unmoored college boys before—his early novel Joe College follows the son of a New Jersey lunch truck proprietor to Yale, where he experiences romantic and friendship foibles and awkward reunions with his former peers back home (not to mention a run-in with a mafia family angling for the lunch truck route). Tom of The Leftovers finds himself adrift at Syracuse (although in his defense, a Rapture-like event had just taken place and his mother had decamped their nice house for a cult). Perrotta doesn’t quite convey the level of sympathy of his previous work for his latest college student—there’s nothing of the fond identification for Brendan that pervaded Joe College. That said, Mrs. Fletcher doesn’t so much excoriate Brendan as it does wonder what the world holds for him—as though the novel were a fictional follow-up to a zeitgeist-defining article like “The End of Men.”

There’s a lot about Mrs. Fletcher that seems like a think piece in response to a think piece about “the way we live now,” and some of the pleasing coherence of Perrotta’s previous novels is perhaps lost in service of this goal. The book occupies a strange territory between legitimately horny romp (the reader hears so much about Mrs. Fletcher’s famous boobs that she can’t help but begin to picture them herself) and a rather pat smorgasbord of current issues faced by characters who haven’t had occasion to think much about them before. But there’s a satisfying honesty to this thematic bluntness. Our president just banned trans people from the military via tweet, after all. It’s not really Tom Perrotta who’s on the nose; it’s America.

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. Scribner.

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