Election: A Novel by Tom Perrotta
GP Putnam’s Sons, 1st edition, 1998
Genre: Satire, literary fiction
A suburban New Jersey high school teacher confronts a student body election gone haywire, in this darkly comic novel by the author of The Wishbones.
Who really cares who gets elected president of Winwood High School? Nobody–except Tracy Flick. Tracy’s one of those students of boundless energy and ambition who somehow find the time to do everything–edit the school paper and yearbook, star in the musical, sleep with her favorite teacher. Tracy’s heart is set on becoming president of Winwood, and whatever Tracy wants, Tracy gets. What’s more, her classmates seem to agree. With weeks to go before election day, her victory is nearly a foregone conclusion.
And that’s just the problem, according to Mr M aka Jim McAllister, faculty adviser tot he Student Government Association and a popular Winwood history teacher. In the name of democracy–not to mention a simmering grudge against Tracy Flick–Mr M recruits the perfect opposition candidate. Paul Warren is a golden boy, a football hero with a brain and a heart, eager to bulk up his meager resume. But the clear-cut two-way race is muddled when Paul’s younger sister unexpectedly enters the competition. Running on a platform of apathy, Tammy Warren is an anonymous sophomore, struggling with her sexuality and mourning the defection of her best friend Lisa, who has abandoned their friendship to become Paul’s campaign manager and girlfriend.
As Winwood High experiences election fever, Mr M is distracted by a sudden attraction to his wife’s best friend. The two dramas he has created–one personal and private, the other public and political–unfurl simultaneously, with all the players haring a life-altering conclusion.
Part satire, part soap opera, Election is an uncommon look at an ordinary American high school and the extraordinary people who inhabit it.
Book Report:I saw Election shortly after it came out on video (I was working at Hollywood Video then, and saw just about everything), and loved it from the start. I even purchased my own used copy from work (on VHS!) because it seemed to me to be the kind of movie I could enjoy any time–and I also wanted to be able to share it with others. That was back in 1999, and I had no idea till I read Little Children that it was based on a novel. (Or did I? I sometimes forget things, amazing as that might sound. I don’t believe I knew it was a novel.)
Unlike practically everyone else I know, I like Tracy Flick. I know she’s a colossal pain, but she’s also a sad and lonely person, despite her advantages. But it’s those same advantages–namely her tenacity, self-possession, and ambition–that make her such a trying person to be around. McAllister justifies his desire to bring Tracy down by qualifying those traits of hers as bad, equating them to coldness, selfishness, and self-entitlement (despite the Puritan work ethic in which we’ve all been steeped here in the US), and rationalizing that she needs to be taught a lesson–and that he’s the one who needs to do it, by means fair or foul. It’s far easier to find sympathy for Tracy in the novel, however; though Reese Witherspoon did a crackerjack job in the role of Tracy Flick, the film plays down her pathos, using her more for cheap laughs, and instead focusing sympathies on McAllister.
Funnily, though the school election seems to matter dearly to Tracy and McAllister, it’s of no great importance to anyone else, really. Tammy and Lisa use it in their feud against one another; Paul thinks it’s a fine idea but would be happy either way; and the rest of the students, well, they care about it as they do any other school activity that requires assemblies. It’s an excuse to get out of class and to fall adhere to subcultural lines of distinction: burnouts versus jocks versus band geeks, and so on.
Like Little Children, Election is oddly cinematic, as though it had been originally written for the screen. Also like Little Children, it’s extremely funny, and though bleak and satirical, it’s no crueler than high school was. Indeed, it’s probably kinder.
Read also: Little Children by Tom Perrotta, I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Cover: Like a school election poster, in bold primary colors.
The second afternoon I read one of those Sweet Valley High books I used to love so much. All through seventh grade I’d been captivated byt the Wakefield twins and their many friends, perky California girls and hunky, well-to-do boys who cruised in fancy cars, kissed on the beach, and confronted the difficult dilemmas of growing up with dignity and courage.
It seemed like a total dreamworld to me now that I was in high school myself. I could only imagine Elizabeth’ Wakefield’s shock–she was the good twin, the one I had the crush on–if she were to spend a week or two in the real world. She’d go back to Sweet Valley with cramps, a filthy mouth, and a bad case of acne. Not even her sister would recognize her.