Domestic bliss weathers a shock

These parents have it all, except love and fidelity

Tom Perrotta is catching up with us, and what used to be funny is starting to draw blood. His witty satire of high school politics in "Election" (1997) was tucked safely in nostalgia for most readers. Even when he graduated to "Joe College" in 2000, his skewering humor was still pointed back at the dorm days of the early '80s. But now with "Little Children," Perrotta has moved into the suburbs with a wrecking ball.

Of course, the tranquility of middle-class bliss has been rudely interrupted by American authors since Sherwood Anderson tore the covers off "Winesburg, Ohio." You would think there were only so many ways to portray the shiny suburbs as dens of boredom, banality, and sexual frustration, but Perrotta has cooked up recipes of depravity that would curl Betty Crocker's hair.

In the late '90s, "women's lib" sounds quaint to the sophisticated women in Perrotta's pleasant East Coast neighborhood. They've all graduated from college prepared for impressive jobs, while taking on the old duties of homemaker and motherhood. They're equally familiar with Tom Peters and Dr. Seuss, their lives effectively tabulated by Franklin Covey to coordinate staff meetings, play dates, and sexual intimacy.

Sarah, Perrotta's antihero and the mother of a 3-year-old, doesn't fit comfortably into this scene of parental one-upmanship. A women's studies major now trapped in domesticity, she feels both superior and inadequate next to the tight, tanned supermoms who rule the sand box.

Perrotta's satire of this have-it-all set strikes tones that will delight any parent who's less than perfect. Mary Anne, for instance, lectures about the benefits of her strictly enforced 7 p.m. bedtime; her diaper bag is a well-stocked pantry and pharmacy; and her 100-percent-juice juiceboxes are always served chilled.

Meanwhile, Sarah's life is a boring, disorganized trial. "It wasn't easy to tell one weekday from the next anymore," she thinks. "They all just melted together like a bag of crayons left out in the sun." When she can't find an old rice cake for her whiny daughter, Mary Anne comes to the rescue with a bag of Goldfish crackers. "It's nothing," she reassures Sarah. "I just hate to see her suffer like that."

This story of suburban unhappiness revolves around an unlikely affair between Sarah and a hunky stay-at-home dad she meets at the playground. Todd cares for his son and procrastinates studying for the bar exam (third try). His gorgeous wife would like to have more children, but somebody's got to bring home a salary.

"Little Children" is a test of Tolstoy's claim that "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." There are no happy families in this satire, and all the unhappy families are unhappy in almost exactly the same way. Again and again, we see well- educated 30-somethings with all the advantages bickering about who gets stuck taking care of the kids. The adorable little pests constantly interrupt the workout or the business trip or the illicit affair.

These well-kept homes are settings of regretted compromises, gnawing aggravations, and smoldering resentments. They've all come to regard marriage as the loss of "omnipresent possibility." Everyone everywhere, it seems, has fallen almost accidentally into the same trough of quiet desperation, saddled with annoying children, unsatisfying mates, and burdensome homes. It's all wickedly funny, until it's just wicked.

Fliers around the neighborhood suddenly announce, "There is a pervert among us!" Ronnie James McGorvey is a convicted sex offender who's moved into his mother's house after serving three years for exposing himself to a child. Naturally, the neighbors are alarmed about his presence. "There seemed to be a general sentiment among the crowd that you weren't doing your duty as a citizen and a parent if you didn't stand up to express your strenuous disapproval of sex offenders." A town meeting convenes, a retired policeman wraps his whole life around the goal of tormenting McGorvey, and the playground mothers fret about the arrival of this element of depravity amid their domestic innocence.

Perrotta demonstrates no sympathy for McGorvey, but he's willing to examine him beyond the tabloid clichés and to look at the painful position of a sex offender's mother. (She keeps encouraging him to start dating again.)

What's more troubling, though, is the acidic implication that McGorvey simply suffers from a more extreme case of the monstrous selfishness that infects everyone in this town. They're all driven by perverse desires they finally conclude they can't control. McGorvey is just unlucky to have been dealt illegal urges. Sarah cheats on her spouse; Mary Anne is an organizational Nazi who strangles her family's joy; another father is addicted to Internet porn (elaborately described). "We want what we want," one of the parents sighs, "and there's not much we can do about it." Consummating her affair with Todd while reading "Madame Bovary," Sarah thinks, "They didn't really have a choice."

This thread of moral fatalism may be more disturbing than any of the other really disturbing things in this novel. The precision of Perrotta's assault on domestic hypocrisy is frightening, to be sure. And if good satire can generate a corrective jolt, this may be a deadly shock. There's a kind of authorial brutality at work here as these people are atomized into their native urges, turning on each other and forgetting, in the end, the little children.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles .

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