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Ray SawhillWe've seen all too much fiction that treats our supposedly postmodern woes—family "dysfunction," men who won't grow up, etc.—in solemnly self-important tones. Finally, here's a novel that takes a look at these subjects and does so comically and open-endedly. Tom Perrotta's The Wishbones is like an early Jonathan Demme movie—low-key, fond of American forms of eccentricity and peopled by loony self-starters.
It's basically a scuffed-up romantic comedy. Dave is 31 and still rooms with his parents in their suburban New Jersey home. He's had the same girlfriend, Julie, for 15 years, and he lives for his weekends, when he plays guitar in a rock band. The big time may have happened to someone else, and the Wishbones may perform mostly for wedding receptions, but Dave still thinks of himself as a rock musician. One night, he almost unintentionally suggests to Julie that they finally get married. She accepts delightedly, then says exactly the wrong words: "There are other things in life besides playing music"—i.e., she wants him to herself on Saturday nights. As the wedding preparations proceed, Dave's life goes into a tailspin. A DJ who spins discs at parties starts to underprice the local bands. Dave stumbles into an affair with a downtown poet; she has her own troubles. When one of the women he's made unhappy tells him not to talk to her anymore because "it just makes it worse," Perrotta writes: "Dave knew better than to ask her to clarify her pronouns."
Perrotta sets the novel in a landscape of pizza joints, cloverleafs and chain motels. His characters, their brains equally innocent of zoning laws, are resourceful and animated, and they keep revealing unexpected sides. A guy Dave imagines to be his nemesis turns out to be smart and likable; banal, sweetly bourgeois Julie adores the song "Cocaine." Perrotta's special comic tone is slow-burning, rueful acceptance. When Dave anxiously asks an older buddy about being a married man, the buddy says, "I got a house, a wife and kids, and a job that doesn't make me want to buy a gun and go wreak havoc at the mall. I get to play music on the weekends and drink a couple of beers every once in a while. Things could be worse, Daverino."
Perrotta may work as a creative writing teacher at Harvard, but he isn't above doing some actual research; the wedding reception and wedding band lore he supplies add a lot to the book's lived-in texture. And if no-win predicaments keep coming at Dave from out of nowhere, so do happy surprises. One night, drunk and pleased with life, Julie tugs open Dave's belt. "In the whole pantheon of sex," Dave reflects, "almost nothing beat a blow job when you least expected it." The Wishbones is a hybrid of the rhymed and the unplanned—a small-scale comedy of accommodation and unresolution that's full of loopiness and warmth. Like Bad Haircut, Perrotta's 1994 collection of stories, it's a minor work but a major pleasure.