Nine Inches: Stories
The Smile On Happy Chang’s Face
“The Smile On Happy Chang’s Face” is from Tom Perrotta’s new collection of stories, Nine Inches: Stories, (St. Martins). Perrotta is best known for his novels Election (1998) and Little Children (2004), both of which were made into critically acclaimed, Academy Award-nominated films. This widely praised collection explores moments of turmoil and rapture in the suburbs.
A recurring element in the stories is the one wrong move a character makes – blowing off college applications, committing adultery – that turns an ordinary life into a suburban hell. With a single misstep, a person can find himself alone, tunneling down into some underground economy, dealing drugs or cheating on the SATs. But the worst consequence of all, for Perrotta’s protagonists, is to have lost their place in the social order of their hometown.
The New York Times review noted that Perrotta’s suburban life is quirky, complicated, immensely rewarding and lived through Little League games, middle-school dances and neighborhood socializing. “Though bad things happen, and marriages and futures go awry, Perrotta doesn’t depict suburban anomie in the vein of Richard Yates. Rather, his portrait of the suburbs as an essential, if at times heartbreaking, facet of our modern lives marks him as the descendant of such chroniclers of small-town America as Thornton Wilder, John O’Hara and Willa Cather.”
One of the best stories is “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face.” It is narrated by a home-plate umpire named Jack at a championship Little League game. The tone coasts from gentle irony (the Superior Wallcoverings Wildcats are facing off against the Town Pizza Ravens) to pathos as Jack provides a play-by-play of the game and of recent events in his own life. In the game, a conflict between the pitcher, Lori Chang, and the opposing team escalates to include her father, Happy.
Jack’s voice throughout most of the story is casual, affable and self-deprecating until he describes a climactic scene with his son. This carefully seeded moment of ugliness, set against the wholesome backdrop of a kids’ baseball game, is not a matter of cheap contrast. Rather, Perrotta uses it to show how ordinary life contains both sweetness and violence.