By Simon Demetriou
Opening reviews with admissions of ignorance is becoming something of a habit, but, once again, I have to admit that Tom Perrotta’s 2022 sequel to 1998’s Election was my first encounter with Tracy Flick, a character made most famous by the 1999 film adaptation of Perrotta’s original novel – and one that I also haven’t seen. Still, as with the gaping Cormac-McCarthy-shaped hole in my personal library, having now read Tracy Flick Can’t Win, I need to ask: do I want to read Election and watch the film?
Tracy Flick, having been diverted – by her mother’s multiple sclerosis and need for Tracy’s care – from what she saw as her destiny of becoming the first female president of the United States, finds herself the vice-principal of a suburban New Jersey high school. But Tracy still believes, as she always has, that she is special, that there is a purpose and meaning to her life that will come to pass if she just keeps on working and deserving it. And, really, this is a book about people who think they’re special, people who other people think are special, and how the world both builds up and destroys these perceptions.
Now, Tracy’s sights are set on becoming Principal. Never the readiest schmoozer, she nevertheless feels obliged to feign enthusiasm when the president of the school board, tech billionaire Kyle Dorfman, decides he wants to set up a school hall of fame. This scheme ties the novel together by bringing in Dorfman, who utters the most pompous line in the entire book: ‘When I call myself a visionary, I don’t mean that in a grandiose way’, and a host of other ‘special’ people. Most interesting of these is Vito Falcone, once the school’s star quarterback, universally acclaimed as the town’s greatest figure, now a recovering alcoholic in the first throes of early onset dementia.
In counterpointing Tracy, who is fundamentally deserving and perennially underappreciated by those in power, with one man who made his money by inventing an idiotic virtual pet app called Barky and another who is the faded and now self-aware version of every jock stereotype ever, Perrotta manages to ask in very comic ways one of literature’s – and mankind’s – oldest questions: what does it mean to live a good life? The final twist, which really catches you off guard, doesn’t give much of an answer, as some suffer far more than they deserve, others less, and Tracy – well, Tracy keeps on ‘doing what I can to make things better, trying to be of service’. Whether that means the book’s title is disingenuous or accurate is something the reader must decide for themselves.