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For many Ivy League college students, spring break means a raucous road trip to a spot in the sun. For Danny, a Yale junior, the spring of 1982 means two weeks behind the wheel of the "Roach Coach," his dad's lunch truck in central New Jersey. But Danny can use the time behind the coffee urn to try and make sense of a love life that's gotten a little complicated. ...
For many Ivy League college students, spring break means a raucous road trip to a spot in the sun. For Danny, a Yale junior, the spring of 1982 means two weeks behind the wheel of the "Roach Coach," his dad's lunch truck in central New Jersey. But Danny can use the time behind the coffee urn to try and make sense of a love life that's gotten a little complicated. There's loyal and patient hometown honey Cindy and her recently-dropped bombshell to contend with. And there's also lissome Polly in New Haven—with her shifting moods, perfect thrift store dresses and inconvenient liaison with a dashing professor. If girl problems aren't enough, there's the menace of the Lunch Monsters, a group of thugs who think Danny has planted the "Roach Coach" in their territory.
Populated by a vividly drawn cast of characters, Joe College is Tom Perrotta's warmest and funniest fiction yet, a comic journey into the dark side of love, higher education and food service.
"An absorbing, fleshed-out portrait of an American male edging toward adulthood by crossing seemingly rigid social boundaries." —The New York Times Book Review
All through that winter and into the spring, when our Tuesday and Thursday night dinner shifts were done, Matt and I would sit at the long table near the salad bar and plan his end-of-the-year party, our voices echoing importantly in the cavernous wood-panelled dining hall.
"What do you think?" he asked. "We gonna need more than two kegs?"
"Depends, I guess. How many people are coming?"
"A lot." Matt fixed me with those weirdly translucent blue eyes of his, eyes that sometimes made me think I was looking straight into his head. "I'm just gonna plaster the campus with signs that say, `Party at Matt's.' As far as I'm concerned, the whole school's invited, plus all of Jessica's friends from Columbia. I wouldn't be surprised if a couple hundred people show up."
"A couple hundred? Your landlord's gonna freak."
"I talked to him. He's cool about it."
"Cool about a couple hundred people?" I hadn't had much experience with landlords, having lived only at home and in dorms for the first twenty years of my life, but even I had enough sense to be skeptical of this claim.
"Lance is a party guy. Two glasses of grain alcohol and he'll be sliding naked down the bannister to answer the door."
"Grain alcohol? Who said anything about grain alcohol?"
"You can't have a really good party without it. Not the kind of party I'm talking about."
"That stuff'll fuck you up," I said,trying to sound as though I were speaking from experience. It was a tone I'd pretty much mastered in my first two-and-a-half years of college.
Matt looked away, a private, dreamy smile softening the intensity of his face. I followed his gaze down the long center aisle of the dining hall, taking quiet satisfaction in the order I'd imposed on what only an hour before had been total chaos. While Matt had been working the dish line, feverishly sorting the dirty plates, glasses, and silverware from trays that came streaming toward him on the conveyor belt, I'd been clearing tables, straightening chairs, emptying ashtrays, laying down fresh paper doilies and clean water glasses, propping up table tents, and wiping the floor with a big hairy dust mop. All the dead guys on the wall, the former masters and rich donors and esteemed scholars, looked down upon my handiwork with solemn approval. They appreciated a clean dining hall and were glad I had made myself useful.
"What I really want," Matt mused, "is a party where everyone gets laid who wants to."
"There's a name for that."
"I'm not talking about an orgy," he said, apparently disappointed in me for thinking that he was. "I'm talking about a situation where everyone gets lucky in their own way."
"Sounds like an orgy to me."
Nick, the Tuesday-night chef, emerged from the kitchen and trudged over to the table to join us for a final cigarette before heading home or out to a bar, wherever it was he went after work. I always did a double take when I saw him in street clothes. Out of uniform he struck me as a plausible human being, an average guy in a belted leather jacket, rather than the sweaty buffoon he impersonated during working hours, a malcontent in a puffy hat muttering an incessant profane monologue as he tossed sprigs of garnish onto trays of scrod in white sauce and meatless baked ziti.
"What's up, pencil dicks?" he inquired, pulling up a chair at the far end of the table as if to illustrate the gulf between us. There didn't seem to be anything hostile in the gesture, just an acknowledgment of fact. We were college boys; he had to work for a living.
"Matt's planning an orgy," I informed him.
Nick nodded calmly, as though he frequently received advance notice of such gatherings.
"An orgy, huh? When's it gonna be?"
"End of the semester," said Matt. "You comin'?"
Nick adjusted the flame on his Zippo before lighting up. This was in 1982, back when smoking was commonplace in the dining halls and dorms, and many seminar tables were matter-of-factly equipped with ashtrays.
"Kristin gonna be there?" he asked.
Kristin Willard was a prep school girl from Greenwich who worked the serving line a couple nights a week, a long-limbed beauty with an overactive social conscience who could break your heart even in one of those hideous blue synthetic shirts they made us wear on the job. Nick had a crush on her just like the rest of us, only worse.
"Fuckin' A," said Matt. He said this a lot when Nick was around. "You think I'd throw an orgy without inviting Kristin?"
Nick wiped at the moustache of sweat droplets that was as much a part of his face as his eyes and nose and gave a shrug that indicated a certain lack of faith in our judgment.
"Knowing you asswipes," he grumbled, "it'd probably just be the three of us."
Still wearing his paper dining-hall cap—this was a peculiar affectation of his; sometimes he even wore it to class—Matt walked me to my entryway and waited by the door with a strange air of expectancy, as if he wanted me to invite him in. He was often like this when we parted company on work nights, and I got the feeling he wasn't too keen on returning to his off-campus apartment. He had transferred from the University of Michigan a year earlier and still seemed a bit adrift, unable to find his place in the social formations that had crystallized before his arrival.
"I got a shitload of reading to do," I explained. "Two books of Paradise-fucking-Lost and as much of Middlemarch as I can stomach without slitting my wrists."
As a defense against looking like a weenie—a term I'd never even heard of until I arrived at Yale, a hotbed of weenies if there ever was one—I had recently adopted the strategy of complaining bitterly about my reading, even to people like Matt, who understood that I didn't mean a word of it.
"More Whitman for me," he said.
"Whitman? Don't you have to finish that Shakespeare paper?"
"I'm so deep into Whitman, I can't even think about Shakespeare right now. As far as I'm concerned Leaves of Grass should be the frigging Bible."
"The Gospel According to Walt," I said, stepping aside to clear a path for two cute sophomore girls in humongous thrift-store overcoats.
"Gross, hankering, mystical, NUDE!" Matt recited, shouting the words like a crazy person in a bus station. The overcoat girls stopped in their tracks, whirling to regard him with startled, disdainful expressions. I directed my attention to Sterling Tower—it was lit up again, glowing like an ad for Higher Learning—attempting to create the impression that my proximity to the maniac in the paper hat was purely coincidental. "`HOW IS IT I EXTRACT STRENGTH FROM THE BEEF I EAT?' "he continued, pleased beyond words by Whitman's inscrutable inquiry.
"Hey," he said, his voice returning to normal as the girls disappeared around the corner into the courtyard. "Wanna grab a slice later on?"
"I can't. I really have to make some headway on Middlemarch. I hate going to seminar unprepared."
He nodded; even in the dark, I could see the disappointment on his face.
"All right, man. I guess I'll see you on Thursday then."
* * *
On the way up to my suite, I had to stand aside to make way for the Whiffenpoofs who lived across the hall. They came barreling down the stairs in their tuxedos, belting out "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in impeccable three-part harmony, off to yet another command performance. Trip winked at me; Thor greeted me with an upraised fist. Nelson Harriman, who was wearing a white silk scarf and looked, as usual, like he'd stepped out of The Great Gatsby, managed to toss out a quick, "Hey, guy," in between the nonsense syllables of the song.
When I arrived at Yale in 1979, I'd been totally unprepared for the centrality of singing groups to campus life, the excitement that surrounded the news that so-and-so had been tapped to be a Spizzwink or an Alley Cat, the presence of one group or another at every official university function you could think of, the number of people who'd tell you proudly on Sunday morning that they'd spent Saturday night at a "jamboree" featuring Red, Hot & Blue and the Duke's Men. I remembered wanting to laugh out loud the first time I saw the S.O.B.'s at our freshman dinner, their heads bobbing up and down like pistons as they mugged their way through that stupid song about putting the lime in the coconut, then slowly realizing that nobody else at my table seemed to find this spectacle even remotely idiotic.
My alienation from the singing-group subculture had only grown stronger in the months I'd spent living across the hall from Nelson, Thor, and Trip. It wasn't that they were bad guys—with the possible exception of Trip, who seemed suspiciously eager to put in a good word for the South African government whenever the subject of apartheid came up. What amazed me was the amount of time the Whiffenpoofs demanded from them, the way their membership in the group seemed to define their entire identity. Most of their time outside class was consumed by Whiffenpoof functions; even their vacations were given over to Whiffenpoof tours. It was true that they got to sleep with Whiffenpoof groupies and visit great Whiffenpoof places—you couldn't brush your teeth next to one of them without hearing about their latest junket to Monaco or Bermuda—but it still didn't seem like a worthwhile trade-off to me. The way I saw it, no amount of sex or travel would compensate for the humiliation of belonging to a group with such a stupid name. For my money, it would have been only marginally more embarrassing to claim membership in "The Shitheads" or "The Dingleberries."
When I got upstairs, Sang, Ted, and Nancy were sitting in the common room with their coats on and backpacks at their feet, listening to Steely Dan's Gaucho, the album of the moment in Entryway C. They could procrastinate like this for hours if no one had a paper or a problem set due the next day, playing the same side over and over again while desperately reassuring one another that they were off to the library any second. These reassurances would continue until someone bowed to the inevitable and shyly floated the alternative of pizza.
The sight of them made me doubly glad I hadn't invited Matt in. The few times he'd mingled with my suitemates, the results hadn't been encouraging. Matt had completely misread the ethos of our suite, deciding it was his duty to monopolize the conversation and impress my friends rather than sit back and let us regale him with anecdotes from our shared history, which was all we really demanded from a guest.
"Danny," Ted commanded, before I'd even had time to unzip my coat, "you've got to tell Nancy about that time Seth went off on the fire alarm."
Nancy was Ted's girlfriend, and had long ago attained the status of honorary suitemate. She had a room of her own in Pierson, but had abandoned it in October, soon after she had begun sleeping with Ted. Their cohabitation had continued even after Ted rotated out of his single into a bunk bed-double with Max. (Privacy turned out to be less of an issue than might have been expected, since Max was purely nocturnal, and didn't even think about going to bed until long after Ted and Nancy had headed off to classes.) I once asked Ted why he and Nancy didn't spend more time in her room, and he explained that Nancy's roommate was living with her boyfriend there, so it would have caused a lot of confusion if Nancy'd tried to reclaim her bed. In any case, Max, Sang, and I didn't mind having her around. She was a lot cooler than Ted and seemed to think the rest of us were pretty great, too.
"I'm sure Nancy's heard that story a hundred times," I said.
"That's okay," Nancy assured me. "I don't mind hearing it again."
I glanced at Sang, who was paging through the phone director with curious ease, despite the fact that he was wearing very large ski mittens. He came from Southern California and found winters in New Haven all but unbearable. He put on his down jacket in mid-October and didn't even think about taking it off until we'd reached the sunny side of spring break. His ex-girlfriend Eve claimed he used to sleep in it every once in a while.
"I have to take a shower," I said. "Why don't you tell it?"
Sang glanced up from the Yellow Pages. He didn't seem to be searching for anything in particular.
"The story about Seth and the fire alarm."
He pulled off one of his mittens and ran his hand over the top of his stiff new crew cut. As part of the grieving process for Eve, he'd decided to change his look from California surfer to Red Chinese nerd, and was clearly fascinated by the new topography of his head.
"I have to go to the library," he said, removing his thick black eyeglasses and polishing them with great deliberation on the tail of his corduroy shirt. He put his glasses back on, tossed aside the phone book, and stood up. "I'm gonna be up half the night as it is."
Ted turned back to Nancy, resigned to telling the story himself. He had that jerky grin on his face, the one that made you want to like him even when you knew that, deep down, you had grave reservations.
"He wailed on that thing with a baseball bat," Ted explained, reducing the story to its essentials. "It's the middle of the night, everyone else is leaving the building, shuffling downstairs in their nightgowns and bathrobes, and this guy is standing there in these tartan plaid boxer shorts, no shirt or anything, beating on the fire alarm with this aluminum baseball bat, screaming, 'Take that, you fucker! Take that, you fucker!'"
"Wait a minute," said Sang, who'd decided to sit back down. "Don't forget, this was like the fifth time in a row the alarm had gone off in the middle of the night. Lots of people were pissed."
"Yeah," I said. "Not to mention the fact that the alarm was right outside our door."
"He didn't stop," Ted continued, unperturbed by our interruptions. "The alarm stopped ringing, but he just kept beating on it for like a half hour. The cops came, but they were afraid to go near him."
"Come on," I said. "It wasn't a half hour."
"I'm exaggerating," Ted explained. "It's an effective storytelling technique."
"He was clinically depressed," Sang pointed out. "He'd been acting kind of weird for a couple of months at that point. Remember? He and Max actually had a fistfight over whether Texas was bigger than Australia."
"Australia's bigger," Nancy said uncertainly. "It's got to be, right? It's a continent."
"The funny thing is," Ted went on, "he didn't hurt the fire alarm at all. Those things are basically indestructible."
"Ruined my bat, though," I said. "Dented the shit out of it."
"Turned out to be the first time in his life he'd ever swung one," Sang added. "Can you imagine? An American guy, nineteen years old, never even swung a baseball bat."
"That was probably like half his problem," said Ted, who was taking a class in Abnormal Psych.
"Is he okay now?" Nancy asked.
"Max was in touch with him for a while last semester," I said. "He's taking a couple of classes at community college, trying to get it back together. He was supposed to come visit for the Harvard game, but his parents wouldn't loan him the car or something."
"Get this," said Ted. "Did you know it's like a federal crime to damage a fire alarm? There was talk of the university pressing charges, but they let him off with counseling."
Sang cast a plaintive look at the door.
"We should call him."
Ted kept shaking his head in delight, as if the story got better and better the more he thought about it. He hadn't been friends with Seth, and didn't seem to notice that the rest of us found the memory of his breakdown upsetting rather than hilarious. He raised an imaginary bat over his head and brought it down hard on an imaginary fire alarm.
"Take that, you fucker!" he said, dissolving into giggles.
The door to my single was closed. I opened it to find Max sprawled out on my bed, barefoot and shirtless, reading Assassin's Diary. Every bone in his rib cage was visible, clearly articulated against its taut sheath of skin. He was a dedicated vegetarian, the first I'd ever known, and his thinness was the source of both amazement and concern for the rest of us.
"Hey," he said, eyes straying from the page to issue only the briefest flicker of greeting. "Wanna know something cool? Arthur Bremer was all set to kill Nixon in Toronto, had a spot along the motorcade and everything, but missed his chance because he decided at the last minute to run back to his hotel room to change into a shirt and tie. He wanted to look respectable on the evening news after he was arrested for killing the president. Isn't that great?"
After John Hinckley's attempt on Reagan's life the previous year and the revelation that he'd done it to win the heart of our fellow Yalie, Jodie Foster, Max had become fascinated by the links between Hinckley, the movie Taxi Driver, and the story of George Wallace's would-be assassin, Arthur Bremer, who seemed to be at the root of it all. He had the feeling that the tangled knot of history, pop culture, celebrity, class resentment, insanity, and sex contained some essential nugget of truth about our society. He'd gotten an Am Stud grad student to agree to supervise an independent study on the subject, but the department had nixed the project, leaving Max to pursue it on his own, to the detriment of his actual classes.
"Uh, excuse me," I said. "I was under the impression that this was my room."
Max looked around, my autographed picture of Uncle Floyd and the crooked Mark Rothko print confirming the fact that this was indeed the case.
"Yeah, well, I got home from the library, and Ted and Nancy had barricaded the door to my room. You weren't around so I figured I'd borrow your bed for a while."
"Well, your room's free now," I said, sounding harsher than I meant to.
He sat up, looking more bewildered than hurt, and ran his fingers through the knotted mop of his curls. Sang and I had once pressed him on the issue of hair care, and he'd finally admitted, after much prodding, that he didn't actually own a comb or a brush and did all of his grooming by hand.
"Sorry, man. Didn't mean to violate your space."
"Don't worry about it," I said, suddenly feeling like a jerk. Only a few weeks earlier, this room had been his, so it was a little weird for me to be pulling rank like this. "I'm kinda stressed. I've got a lot of reading to do tonight."
"I'm outta here," he assured me.
He hopped off the bed, took a couple of steps toward the door, then stopped. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, grimacing with the effort of recollection.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "I forgot to tell you. Cindy called again last night."
But Danny can use the time behind the coffee urn to try and make sense of a love life that's gotten a little complicated. There's loyal and patient hometown honey Cindy and her recently-dropped bombshell to contend with. And there's also lissome Polly back in New Haven—with her shifting moods, perfect thrift store dresses and inconvenient liaison with a dashing professor.
If girl problems aren't enough, there's the constant menace of the Lunch Monsters, a group of thugs who think Danny has planted the Roach Coach in their territory.
Joe College is Tom Perrotta's warmest and funniest fiction yet, a comic journey into the dark side of love, higher education and food service.
1.In their final encounter, Cindy suggests that Danny has taught her an important lesson. What is this lesson? Is it helpful or harmful to Cindy?
2. When he returns home for Spring Break, Danny has an epiphany of sorts, courtesy of a voice in his head: "I could just be myself, my father's son, living out my life in the town where I was born . . . . I could learn to love [Cindy] the way my father had learned to love my mother . . . . all that could be enough." Is this true? Or is Danny kidding himself?
3. Who grows and changes more over the course of the novel, Danny or Cindy?
4. Some readers feel that Danny gets off too easily in Joe College, that he's never really held accountable for hisactions. How does Danny himself feel about this issue? What about the characters around him?
5. What does Danny's journey in Joe College tell us about social mobility and social class in America?
6. Is Danny simply living out the American Dream, an updated version of the Horatio Alger myth? Or is he the beneficiary of a flawed system that gives special privileges and opportunities to a chosen few?
7. The Lunch Monsters are a particular Perrotta creation. How do the thugs represent the author's attempt to flesh out Danny's guilt? Danny says, "There must have been something I was trying to prove by picking a fight with these guys," but it's not clear what Danny is trying to prove, or to whom. What do you feel he's trying to prove? Could it be an attempt to assuage his guilt over Cindy?
8. At several points in the story, the author uses a pause and an absence of sound to indicate that a significant event has just occurred. How do these pauses provide a framework for the momentum of the story?
About the Author
Tom Perrotta is also the author of Election (made into the acclaimed 1999 movie starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon), The Wishbones and Bad Haircut. He lives in Belmont, Massachusetts and is a 1983 graduate of Yale.
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