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January 8, 2015

“Nine Inches”

by Anne Paddock

It’s easy to say you should let a kid follow his heart. But what if his heart takes him places you don’t want to go?

Nine Inches is a collection of short stories written by Tom Perrotta, an American writer, novelist and screenwriter who often writes of high school using all the drama of those years as a metaphor for life. Published in 2014, Nine Inches contains ten short stories written from the perspective of teenagers, adults, and senior citizens and, yet they all share a common theme: high school never really ends.

Nine_InchesAny parent of a high schooler or college student is acutely aware of the pressure on young people. Students are expected to enroll in a tough curriculum (lots of AP classes), maintain a high GPA, take a multitude of standardized tests (i.e. SAT, ACT, AP, and Subject Tests), score highly on these exams, excel in sports and participate in extracurricular activities in order to gain entrance to top colleges.

What no one tells them is that college is not the endgame; it’s only the beginning of a road that never seems to end. Ten years on no one really cares what their SAT scores were or how many field goals were made in the semi-finals at the nationals.  What no one tells them is that decades later they will be remembered for their character and how they treated their friends and classmates and not how they performed on stage.

In The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face, the author tells the story of two men who went to high school together only to play out their hostility towards each other decades later at their kids’ Little League baseball game. And, in The All-Night Party, a middle-aged divorced woman who recalls her high school years as painful, reluctantly volunteers to chaperone the senior party only to have all those long-buried emotions resurface when confronted with students she both identifies with and those she remembers as insensitive and narcissistic.

Two short stories – Grade My Teacher and Nine Inches – are told from the perspective of a teacher – one preoccupied with what students think of her and the other with what he is missing. In each story, the protagonist is painfully exposed for being a self-absorbed teenager in an adult body. But, the protagonist doesn’t have to be a teacher to be a member of this group, as shown in One-Four-Five: the story of a young disgraced doctor who blames his fall on “a single, inexplicable transgression” when in fact, his fall from “husband, father, homeowner, soccer coach, church goer, Audi driver, and pediatrician” to “an outcast, an adulterer, an absentee dad, the costar of a sordid workplace scandal” resulted from a long line of bad decisions.

Three stories – Backrub, Senior Season, and The Test Taker will rock the world of any high school parent on the sidelines.  In Backrub, Don, a top student with enviable SAT scores aims too high in college entrances and is effectively shut out. It’s the story of many a kid who doesn’t see the world the way the world sees them -“kids who are so sure of their own worth, and the world’s ability to recognize it” that they are unable to even contemplate a door closing before it’s even been opened.

In Senior Season, a star football player is sidelined and learns he has a lot more in common with his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Scotto than he ever thought possible. But the most chilling account of life as a senior in high school is The Test Taker: the story of Josh, a high school senior who earns extra money by taking the SAT for other people. Anyone who has ever dismissed petty injustices as inconsequential will think again after reading this short story.

The drama inherent in friendship, love, and betrayal are front and center in Kiddie Pool, a short story of two couples who have lived next door to each other for decades. When their long-term friendship goes sour over some trivial disagreement, 68-year old Gus is filled with anger, sadness, and a sense of entitlement only to realize he’s opened a door to the past that he can’t close.

The loneliness of the elderly and the inequities of being female in a male dominated world are played out in The Chosen Girl.  Rose, an elderly widow is lonely although she is having a hard time realizing she is alone. Her son is grown and too busy with his own family to visit her and so she spends her time thinking about a young girl she sees at a bus stop. Although the child is a member of a religious group, Rose dreams about “saving” the girl who doesn’t own a coat.

As much as we would like to leave high school behind, the injustices, hurts, and triumphs often follow us through life, as seen through Nine Inches, a contemporary collection of stories relevant to our times.

What really bothered him was that he could have spent so much time on earth – he was sixty-eight years old, for God’s sake – and understood almost nothing about his own life and the lies of the people he was closest to.

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