A Review of Tom Perrotta’s “Tracy Flick Can’t Win”
One of the very last DVDs that I ever rented was the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Election. I’m not trying to date myself since the film came out in 1999 — were DVDs even a thing during that year? (I forget). I wound up watching it sometime after the fact (maybe 10 years ago?), as I was going through a big Alexander Payne binge at the time, soaking up all the films that he had directed. Anyhow, the movie — which is based on a book by Tom Perrotta that came out the previous year — is about a young woman named Tracey Flick who seemingly has everything academic going for her as she tries to win her high school’s election for student council president. I haven’t read the book, but the movie — to the best of my memory — is pretty good. Basically, if I’m remembering this properly, Tracy Flick was a character who had just about everything going for her, even if one of her teachers is trying like mad to make sure she loses the election. She embodies everything about youthful ambition and getting to exactly where you want to go in life.
To that end, Election’s sequel — Tracy Flick Can’t Win — is a kind of reversal of fortune story. Now in her 40s, Flick is the assistant principal of a high school. Her over-achiever ambition sets in once again when she learns that the school’s principal is set to retire in a year. However, if she wants to climb to the top of the educational pecking order, she must stick handle a proposal from the school board to create a Hall of Fame to elevate said academic institution to a hallowed place — from which it has been slipping from since the football team stopped winning sometime in the late ’90s. To that end, there is a star candidate and graduate of the school — a former NFL quarterback who played all of four games of professional football before blowing out his knee, thus beginning his slow descent into alcoholism. This ex-player is the type of guy who would be a question mark when it came to showing up for his own induction if he were to manage to make it to the nomination ballot in the first place. But that’s the least of Flick’s troubles. A lot of life has happened to her, and can she rebound from personal setbacks to become the principal of her school?
This is a short book that some could probably read in one sitting lasting perhaps two or three hours. However, it is a stellar read. It’s hilarious and touching and poignant and a little sad. The book really resonated with me as a middle-aged man because part of the book is really about the promise of youth and how it gets crushed by the big bad world out there. Like Flick, I thought I was going places in my 20s with my journalism and fiction-writing careers (both mutually exclusive, thanks). Life didn’t turn out the way I expected. You could say that life just isn’t fair, so here I am on Medium cranking out book reviews to account for all my professional failures. To that end, this novel is directly on point about what it means to be middle-aged and not as successful as you thought you might have turned out to be. I was kind of left speechless by the author’s wisdom, and it seems strange that he gets being middle-aged so right. I mean, sure, he’s lived through it, but he acutely knows what it’s like to be someone who doesn’t get a taste of the big show, even if he doesn’t remember it because, well, he’s been a successful writer with movie and TV deals for a long time now.
I can say that Tracy Flick Can’t Win does work as a stand-alone novel. As noted earlier in this piece, I hadn’t read Election before reading this and only saw the movie — which I only vaguely remember. But while the sequel does briefly touch on events from the previous book/film, it doesn’t linger there. You could be a new fan of the Flick universe and still figure out what’s going on. It takes a special type of author to be able to do that. In short, this is a stand-up, compelling and astonishing book — whose sole gripe I have against it is that it is so short. Things just fly by in a “blink and you’ll miss it” way. However, and this may sound like a paradox butted up against what I’ve just written, part of the appeal of this book is the speed at which it is told. The author is spinning multiple narrative plates here as the novel is told from many different viewpoints at a breakneck, clipped pace. Perhaps that’s the whole point of Tracy Flick Can’t Win: this is the story of many different people whose lives are passing them by right before their eyes. All in all, maybe we all just can’t win because death is the big equalizer and none of what we do is going to matter in the end because we’ll all be forgotten centuries from now. That might seem to be kind of pessimistic and depressing, but, thankfully, the novel does have a sort of happy, relatively upbeat ending. All in all, everyone gets what they deserve, even if it might not be exactly what they want.
I’m guessing that there’s another potential Reese Witherspoon vehicle lined up behind this book. If so, it’ll be interesting to see how it gets pulled off without a Matthew Broderick-like character in tow for balance. But one thing is for sure: it’s bound to make for a good popcorn-y movie that is equal parts comedy and equal parts drama. A lot is going on here to take in that would be interesting to see get stuffed into a couple of hours’ worth of film. But I’ll watch it, even if I now “rent” my DVDs from the library and must wait on copies to become available alongside everybody else. (But who knows? I may don a mask and try this at my local multiplex.) Just like Election is revered as a bit of a modern-day classic, I’m sure Tracy Flick Can’t Win would be an equally impressive follow-up. Groan if you want to, but it could very well turn out to be, well, a pretty decent Flick.
Tom Perrotta’s Tracy Flick Can’t Win was published by Scribner on June 7, 2022.
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