Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In Little Children's Massachusetts suburb of Bellington, the residents all make children priority number one, although not always in the same fashion. Todd, a stay-at-home would-be lawyer working on his third try at the bar exam, finds that his son provides structure for his day and the soundtrack for his life, as Raffi songs slowly erode the lyrics of Nevermind. To Sarah, who begins her friendship with Todd with a dangerously intimate gesture, her daughter is a constant reminder that her life has zigged when she expected it to zag; her encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary feminist theory and her ambiguous college-age sexuality have given way to a traditional, career-free marriage. Their neighbor Ronnie, convicted of indecent exposure and suspected of worse, has children in mind, too, and the characters' illicit desires keep bumping against each other until the whole town starts to rattle. A master of the telling detail, The Wishbones and Election author Tom Perrotta directs his attention to the hidden rhythms of suburbia, with its daytime rituals of playground lunches, trips to the pool, and low-key affairs, and nighttime escapes into midnight football leagues, book groups, and Internet porn. Few writers have as keen an observational eye, but longtime readers might be startled by the jaundice that creeps into Little Children. Perrotta retains his gift for humor, but the laughs keep curdling as his characters' actions draw them ever closer to disaster. Whether they're motivated by selfishness or unhappiness, or whether it matters, they couldn't be more doomed if Thomas Hardy had written them. The darker tone doesn't always accentuate Perrotta's strengths. When focusing on the main characters, he easily conveys the specific flavors of their marital unhappiness. But the supporting cast is straight out of a central-casting conception of suburban dystopia, and the story keeps alternating delicate detail with sledgehammer irony, as when Sarah feels she's reached a new understanding of her infidelity by reading Madame Bovary. It raises the question of whether even Gustave Flaubert could find anything new to say about stifling suburbia, those who would leave it, and those who never will.

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