Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

As Joe College opens, Danny, a working-class kid whose intelligence and hard work have earned him admission to Yale, struggles against various distractions to make it through Middlemarch. Tom Perrotta, on the other hand, has clearly paid careful attention to George Eliot's masterpiece: With his latest novel, the author of Election and The Wishbones attempts in miniature what Eliot did on a mammoth scale. Instead of examining the class boundaries of provincial Victorian England and the spots at which such boundaries break, Joe College takes place in early-'80s New England, following its protagonist from New Haven to his industrial hometown of Darwin, New Jersey. While minding his hemorrhoid-stricken father's lunch truck over an eventful spring break, he faces the repercussions of an ill-starred affair with a local woman who writes him impassioned letters discussing their relationship in terms of Springsteen lyrics—and the wrath of some small-time Mafiosi determined to take over the lunch trade. Perrotta's writing has such a breezy, comic grace that he makes it easy to overlook the complexity of his creation. Like Danny, the New Jersey-born author attended Yale in the Reagan '80s and seems to have carried every detail with him: not so much the easy pop-culture references (at least one of which he gets drastically wrong), but the feel and folkways of the place. Specifically, Perrotta looks at the unconscious reactions to the unspoken class divides in both settings, the unease Danny creates among his fellow Darwinians that prompts both the titular nickname and his own reactions to his classmates' inappropriate working-class affectations. ("You hang out with a cook? That is so cool.") Given what could have been a one-sided culture clash with such ripe satirical targets as pretentious Ivy League undergrads, the generous author neither judges anyone too harshly nor lets anyone off the hook too easily, including his hero. In struggling up, Danny both sustains and inflicts a great deal of psychic damage. Perrotta conveys that fact while maintaining an unrelenting comic tone, confirming the author as a Roddy Doyle-like master of easy, incisive brilliance.

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