In Tom Perrotta's new novel, Joe College, Danny juggles his working class background with the social and academic demands of Yale. The story, set in 1982, alternates between the rarified air of New Haven and the grimy roads of industrial New Jersey, where Danny's father grinds out his days in a lunch truck nicknamed the Roach Coach.
Perrotta is the author of three previous novels, including Election, a biting satire of high school politics that was made into a well-received film of the same name. He returns to familiar territory in this latest chronicle of New Jersey youth, this time setting the scene in college instead of high school. The crux of the novel is Danny's rocky negotiation of various situations, some comic, some romantic, some life-threatening. He constantly dances back and forth between the academic stratosphere and the dish line where he works at a university dining hall. Trading barbs with salty-tongued cooks one minute and flinging deadpan jokes about George Eliot at his fellow student-workers the next, Danny (we never learn his last name) seems comfortable straddling both worlds, but still a subtle undercurrent of otherness troubles him. His struggle for acceptance continues like a nagging thought throughout the book.
Danny's various love interests further complicate matters. Cindy, a Jersey girl he met while driving the Roach Coach on break from college, looms ominously with her incessant phone messages. Her opposite number at Yale, the beautiful and intriguing Polly, intermittently dates one of the English department's rising stars, simultaneously dropping Danny thinly veiled hints of interest. These matters alone would sufficiently occupy the time of a college student, but during Danny's spring break, circumstances force him to operate the Roach Coach just as the neighborhood mob moves in on the lunch truck business. With a bravado deliciously incongruous with his Yale pedigree, he threatens a mob foot soldier, insults the local don, and acquits himself surprisingly well when cornered by a gaggle of beefy Mafiosi.
Perrotta has created a funny, likable protagonist in Danny, and the perfect vehicle in which to crack wise about Yale, New Jersey, and everything in between.
Michael Paulson teaches English at Penn State University.