Tom Perrotta’s “Election” is Brilliant While His Sequel Falls Short

Written by Hayden Claborn, Entertainment Reviewer

Tom Perrotta's Election
Credit: Putnam Adult

It’s very easy to consume Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel Election in one sitting— not just because of its brevity, but also because it’s easy to get enchanted by its gleeful toxicity. All of Perrotta’s characters are loathsome on some level, yet the reader will find moments where they empathize even with the worst of them. 

Taking place in the early 1990s, the narrative surrounds the student presidential election at Winwood High in suburban New Jersey. The reader is shown a carousel of interesting characters but the standout is Tracy Flick: a Hillary Clinton-esque know-it-all 17-year-old running for the top position. She is initially annoying, but becomes more sympathetic as the narrative progresses. There is also her opponent, Paul Metzler: the nice jock who isn’t invested in the overall election. 

If Perrotta has a point, it’s that the adults are as immature as the teenage students. The main adult figure, Mr. M, is a self centered buffoon: “It’s true: despite the fact that I was an adulterer who, a man who’d fallen in love…with his wife’s best friend, the mother of our godchild, I felt betrayed, and still do.” Mr. M says. 

Election is acidic and taboo. Mr. M admits to imaging Tracy Flick as he has sex with his wife, and the male teachers frequently comment on the bodies of their female students. Tracy herself was taken advantage of by a male teacher who ended up getting fired for his misconduct. The sex scandals seem to directly call attention to the real-life sex scandals of the Clinton Administration. 

Perrotta has a frank writing style that can make moments terrifically introspective and eerie. His characters are shown naked; no obfuscation. Election is a terrific novel, and one I plan on revisiting. 

Tracy Flick Can't Win
Credit: Scribner

Then in 2022, Tom Perrotta published Tracy Flick Can’t Win, a majorly disappointing work, especially when compared to its predecessor. The kaleidoscopic, multi-thread narrative is there, but this time Perrotta has lost some of his shine. Despite being the titular character, Tracy Flick is forced to share room with other characters who aren’t terribly interesting. By the end of the book, I had trouble fully grasping what Perrota was getting at. 

That said, there is a lot to like about Tracy Flick Can’t Win. The work Perrotta has done with Tracy is intriguing; she is no longer the plucky girl from high school.  She is now an adult woman who has been beaten down by life, and upon examining her past, realizes that she was taken advantage of. Once again she’s campaigning in an election, this time to become a principal, and once again the men around her are shown to be massive manipulators. 

However, none of the other characters are as interesting as Tracy, and even the best ones are more like one-dimensional concepts than fleshed-out people. I enjoyed Vito Falcone, an ex-football player who is inducted into the school’s hall of fame. He’s the walking definition of a dead-beat living off the reputation of his glory days. That being said, he never fully comes alive compared to the characters in Election, and the same is true for the rest of the characters in the novel. I fail to fully realize why Perrotta chose to revisit this world. 

Despite my overall recommendation of  Tracy Flick Can’t Win, I cannot say I’ll ever reread it, unlike the original which I’ll treasure for years to come.

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