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Book review: Tracy Flick is back - and she’s tired of losing

Tracy Flick Can’t Win  (Scribner)
Tracy Flick Can’t Win (Scribner)
By Ron Charles Washington Post

When we last saw Tracy Flick, the ambitious high school girl in Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel, “Election,” she’d been named student body president. But hers was a soiled victory that came only after a humiliating recount.

“Despite the actual outcome of the election, I still felt like a loser,” Tracy says. When the first – fraudulent – results were announced, “I stood up by mistake and was laughed at by hundreds of people. There was something true in that laughter, a truth I felt would taint every good thing in my life for years to come.”

She’s right: There was something true in that laughter, but it’s something true about us, not her. Ever since Reese Witherspoon immortalized Tracy in the movie version of “Election,” determined women have been labeled Tracy Flicks. It’s a handy slur to disparage female ambition, to laugh off the efforts of smart women who try too hard.

Now, Tracy is back in Perrotta’s ruminative sequel, “Tracy Flick Can’t Win.” Like Hillary Clinton, Tracy never fulfilled her plans to become president of the United States. She never even came close. When her mother developed multiple sclerosis, Tracy dropped out of Georgetown Law School to take care of her. It was a loving and dutiful decision – the kind that flunks the test for American success.

At the start of “Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” her youthful dreams look like dress-up clothes abandoned in the attic. The idea that she was once destined for “something amazing” seems quaint. “I didn’t believe that anymore,” Tracy admits, “but I remembered the feeling, almost like I’d been anointed by some higher authority, and I missed it sometimes.” These days, Tracy is a single mother raising a 10-year-old daughter. Instead of pulling the levers of international politics from the White House, she’s enforcing the dress code at a New Jersey high school.

Yes, Tracy Flick is an assistant principal.

She may be chastened by life’s disappointments, but she is not wholly quelled by them. After being passed over for three other promotions, she knows her moment has arrived. Principal Jack Weede just announced his long-delayed retirement, and, given Tracy’s exemplary service – including acting as principal while Weede recovered from a heart attack – she has every reason to assume the job will be hers. (Spoiler alert: “Tracy Flick Can’t Win.”)

Her confidence is bolstered by the president of the school board, Kyle Dorfman, who also is the wealthiest man in town. All Tracy has to do to win Dorfman’s support is play along with his silly plan to build a local hall of fame. But that simple expediency scratches all her old anxieties. Serving on the advisory board for this new honor, she keeps wondering, “What would happen if my old high school started a Hall of Fame and my name came up for consideration?” While silently rehearsing her own failures, she must grin through inane committee meetings that place male athletic triumphs and female pleasantness at the pinnacle of human accomplishment.

Perrotta has cleverly designed this sequel to re-create the tragicomedy of “Election” in a new era. Even Tracy notices the parallels between her teenage campaign for president of the Student Government Association and her adult effort to be appointed principal. “It brought back memories I’d prefer not to dwell on,” she says, before dwelling once again on the efforts of her civics teacher to keep her from winning by tampering with the ballots. “For a while,” she says, “I tried to turn it into a funny story.”

That’s what Perrotta tries to do, too. But, in both novels, the humor is a subtle indictment. I had forgotten that “Election” opens with a classroom discussion of the Glen Ridge sexual assault. In that real-life 1989 crime, high school football players in New Jersey gang raped a 17-year-old girl with an intellectual disability. In the novel, the students talking about the case believe that the football players deserved to have “a good time” and that the girl was asking for it. The teacher is horrified – we’re horrified – but then we blithely move on to enjoy the humiliation of Tracy Flick, a know-it-all teenage girl who had been seduced by her English teacher.

Now, decades later, “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” opens in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Reading the shocking stories about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer and others, Tracy finally begins to realize that she was a victim all those years ago. “It had become pretty clear to me that that was how it worked – you got tricked into feeling more exceptional than you actually were,” she says. Sadly, the only path toward healing is admitting that “maybe I’d been a little more ordinary than I would have liked to believe.”

Perrotta often is billed as a comic novelist, but he has become our patron saint of suburban melancholy. He knows so well how little worlds can generate their own unbearable pressures. Despite his steadily rising success – novels! movies! TV shows! – he demonstrates an intense empathy for the anguish experienced “by those who ne’er succeed.” Moving through short chapters, mostly narrated in the first person by a rotating collection of characters, “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” offers a sobering vision of lives marinating in regret.

The ending depends on a perverse kind of deus ex machina that some readers will consider too melodramatic. But that’s for us to argue about after you’ve read it. For the moment, suffice it to say that although Witherspoon’s note-perfect performance may never be forgotten, Perrotta has reclaimed the name Tracy Flick from the bucket of misogynist punchlines.

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