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High School Presidential
on June 29, 2002
The back cover of this edition of "Election" makes the following claims: Tracy Flick, prospective President of Winwood High, is the kind of girl who "edits the yearbook [and] star[s] in the musical"; Paul Warren, likable jock, is so dim he's described as "not sure what's going on"; and the election at the high school is fraught with "sex scandals, smear campaigns, and behind-the-scene power brokers". I mention this, because, curiously, none of these things are found in the book. Oh sure, they could be. Maybe in the in-between scenes, the one that author Tom Perrotta doesn't actually write, but that's reading a little too much into the book's subtext. Either that, or an overworked copywriter never read the book, but rented the movie instead.
This is one of those rare occasions where the movie is more fleshed-out than the book. At a scant 200 pages (it can't be more than 40,000 words long; the slowest of readers could polish it off in a couple of hours), I found myself waiting for favourite scenes from the movie to pop up in prose form. Can you believe that Mr. McAllister doesn't even get stung by a bee in the book? For shame! I know, I know, you can't blame Perrotta for any of this; he wrote the book he wrote and he can't change it now for an audience familiar with the story in another medium. They might be disappointed by the omissions, but I wasn't.
While the book rarely gives more than a preliminary expository sketch of its characters, Perrotta is smart enough to allow self-definition through their actions and their speech. Which any good book should be doing anyway. Listen to the way these kids talk. Paul describes his girlfriend Lisa as: "sarcastic-looking." It's a phrase that means nothing, but somehow I can picture her. A better example is this bit from Tracy, describing a torrid affair with a teacher: "We fooled around in the darkroom, the handicapped elevator (this was after school, when the wheelchair kids had gone home), and backstage, behind the curtain." This is the essence of Tracy's character: she's blunt, politically incorrect (ironic for someone running for class president), and unabashedly cold. Perrotta, in a style that stays away from overly purple prose, nails the language of the age perfectly. I suspect that Perrotta knew this was his greatest strength, for the book is told in a series of vignettes, each from a different character's point of view. The effect is "Rashomon"-like, as we get alternating viewpoints on situations and character that allows us to question just who is telling the whole truth.
In a pivotal scene, an overzealous campaign manager defines the 'base' voters of each candidate. Paul's support will come from the "jocks, cheerleaders, and wannabes." Tracy can count on "the AP crowd, [and] maybe the band." Tammy Warren, Paul's younger sister and bona fide alternative candidate, will garner most of her votes from "the burnouts and the benchwarmers and the kids who feel left out." Not only does this scene neatly define the election subplot, but also it quickly categorizes what it means to be a high school student: you're athletic and popular, smart and respected, or apathetic and unsympathetic. It's a pretty bleak school view that Perrotta lays out. For those of us who remember high school vividly, though, it can't be more accurate.
Perrotta's accurate eye is not only trained on the students, but it gets a good look at the teachers too. Jim McAllister, a.k.a. Mr. M., is our conduit into this little-seen world. He's a perfect example of the adage, "those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Although that's unfair, for Mr. M is too satisfied to see if he can 'do'. One moment of anguish has him detailing a dream of his perfect career, only to admit that he'd "done nothing to implement [those dreams]." In many ways, Mr. M reads like a typically content but not happy character. But in other ways, he's rather odd. Over his decade at the school he's built himself a prudent reputation, while simultaneously building a solid marriage. But he dallies from his wife and career in one destructive week, and it changes him from being a respected teacher to a man who would reflexively muse that "it's awful to admit, but I felt a powerful sense of relief every time I turned on the TV and saw buildings going up in flames, and that poor man being dragged out of his truck."
This last bit, an oblique reference to Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, also highlights the book's insistence on being anchored in a specific time period. The L.A. Riots, the Thomas/Hill hearings, and the impending election of Governor Clinton into the White House all form an early nineties backdrop that seems to be commenting directly on the events occurring at Winwood High. "The only difference was that Bill and Clarence lied and I told the truth," laments Mr. M., in one of the book's most poignant lines. The time and place are captured neatly, and relevantly.
"Election" is not a perfect slice-of-life. It's too short to be considered great, and there are some clunky plot-devices that I didn't buy. But it's still more than just a trifle. If you'd told me some prodigy teenager had handed this work in for a creative writing assignment, I'd believe you. For the accuracy and flavour of the dialogue, the complex yet simply believable characters, and the credible picture of high school it draws.