Life 101 has the toughest teacher of all

JOE COLLEGE By Tom Perrotta St. Martin's Press 320 pp., $23.95

Contrary to the latest evidence, not everyone who goes to Yale runs for president - or even vice president. Sadly, some ivy-covered students are just ordinary joes.

Having skewered the antics of high school politics in "Election" (Putnam, 1997), Tom Perrotta has now graduated to a witty novel about Danny, a hapless Yale junior. "Joe College" covers a few crucial weeks in the life of this anxious student struggling (and largely succeeding) to fit in with the golden-haired snobs of New Haven.

As if the coursework weren't hard enough, Danny also labors against the sense that he doesn't belong at Yale. By studying very hard, he can pass himself off as equal to his effortlessly brilliant peers, but the cultural divide is not so easily crossed. His father drives a lunch truck called the Roach Coach; their fathers summer in Paris.

Before Danny came to Yale, he'd never met a vegetarian, talked to anyone who was bilingual, or eaten out anywhere besides McDonald's. Now, he's spending inebriated nights arguing about the morality of anarchist violence while his roommates have sex.

Poor Danny is suspended between worlds that normally don't see one another, and his efforts to bridge the economic divide are fraught with difficulty. At first, he's embarrassed to mention his hometown girlfriend, but then he realizes how exotic his friends find the story of dating an actual secretary. He confesses, "I played up the working-class angle for all it was worth." He hopes to impress sophisticated Polly, a young woman on the staff of their literary magazine who wants to be a painter so she can wear those speckled pants.

Danny is painfully aware of the sacrifice his parents are making to send him to this four-year camp. And in the dishroom where he works, he rubs elbows with those common laborers who are excluded from the Elysian Fields by "a few points on a standardized test and a bit of luck." That Danny notices these inequities is admirable; that he persists in wanting to join the snobs is sadly understandable.

But leaving the old world behind is tough. For one, he has to drive the Roach Coach during spring break. While his friends are judging wet T-shirt contests in Florida, he's dodging mobsters who are trying to crowd his father out of the snack business. Who ever thought Twinkies could be this dangerous?

Even more threatening to his well being is the girlfriend he blew off when he went away to Yale. Her surprise pregnancy threatens to drag him back from the groves of academe to the aisles of Wal-Mart.

Perrotta's narrator constantly displays that comic mixture of guilt and self-justification everyone harbors but usually has the good sense to keep hidden. "Joe College" captures the voice so clearly that you'll find yourself shaking and nodding your head at the same time. Indeed, your sympathy for Danny is likely to depend upon your own antics (and gender) in college.

He's such an affable guy that I spent much of the novel feeling like a noisy kid in a horror movie: "No, Danny, look out! Don't do that!" But in this case, the monsters are mostly his own flaws.

Perrotta's genius is his ability to depict student culture with dead-on accuracy. His satiric touch is like a light, but killing frost. How perfect that the high point of Danny's academic success at Yale is an essay on Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," a play in which men who have sex before marriage are sentenced to death. All through Danny's antics, he's trying to find time to study "Middlemarch," an enormous Victorian novel that explores the difficulty of maintaining high ideals.

Although "Joe College" is set in the early '80s, "back when smoking was commonplace" and "sexual harassment hadn't quite come into its own as a concept," it's funny to see how little things have changed in the ivory tower - or the minds of young men - over the past 20 years.

Danny is always racked with guilt, but after a while, his guilt seems less a step toward reformation than a trendy license to keep enjoying himself. Ultimately, he gets away with it every time. The only thing he suffers in the end is the loss of his own soul.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com. Or join the conversation about books at 'MonitorTalk' on our Web page: csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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