Vulnerability and restraint are a boy's fashion in 'Seventies'

June 19, 1994|By Leslie MacKay

What's so bad about a bad haircut if the girl who gives it to you asks you out and takes you home? Such small, ironic trade-offs are at the heart of Tom Perrotta's "Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies." It's an engaging but dispassionate collection of tales told from the point of view of Buddy, a boy growing up in a small working-class town in the aftermath of the '60s.

Mr. Perrotta's protagonist is an unassuming hero and a tentative narrator who seems to survive his evolution from Cub Scout to semi-rebel to college student by noticing things -- about his family, his peers, and his community. Buddy is an enigmatic character, not always kind, honest or brave, but alert to the world around him.

Buddy's 10 stories are carved out between opposing tensions of vulnerability and restraint. In each, the personal griefs of a rich set of characters are cast in a fresh, affecting light. But the stories are told with an ironic touch that warns against too sympathetic a reading.

In the first narrative, "The Wiener Man," Buddy, age 9, is out with the Cub Scouts when the den leader, his own mother, runs into an old boyfriend in the form of the Wiener Man, a company mascot dressed as a hot dog driving around in a Frankmobile.

Mr. Perrotta delicately evokes Buddy's emerging recognition of his mother's old romance. At the last minute, the story expands to include Buddy's father, who works as an assistant manager at Lamp City, where each day he is blinded by the light.

As Buddy gets older, his stories hinge more on his relationships with other boys. The framework of masculine ties suits Buddy's self-effacing nature; his friends allow him to define himself in relation to them through idle time, sports and adventures. With his peers, Buddy commits acts of indifference, aggression and revenge he wouldn't consider alone. Afterward, the rituals he shares with them offset the glimmerings of his conscience.

In the haunting "Race Riot," Buddy joins a group ("half normal guys, half psychos") heading combatively into a black neighborhood at night. The white boys watch an elegant "game of fast breaks" on a dimly lighted basketball court; then, they leave in a threatening cloud of insults. Later, Buddy returns with an especially belligerent friend, who talks him into assaulting a remaining lone player and stealing his ball.

Male bonding is treated more sparingly in other stories. In the hilarious "A Bill Floyd Xmas," Buddy and a friend, deeply intoxicated, try to make it through Midnight Mass, with Buddy's father also in attendance. ("It was a family tradition: he and I went to church on Christmas Eve while my mother, the only one of us who believed in God, stayed home and wrapped presents.") In other stories, Buddy's male friends speak in voices of intelligence and sensitivity beyond his own range.

Where are all the girls in all of this? They are around, weaving in and out of this collection, often as sympathetic but puzzling presences. Buddy has female friends, and he progresses from spin-the-bottle to sex in the course of these stories.

But, as his driver's education teacher accuses him, Buddy is a bit of a spectator. The self-effacing qualities that smooth the edges of his male friendships are of little help when he finds himself alone with an unfamiliar being.

Despite its poignancy and wit, "Bad Haircut" takes risks with its readers' sense of involvement. There are moments when Mr. Perrotta's mild treatment of the '70s reads more like a bland rendition of the '50s. ("Is it true about Margie Waldman? . . . That she did it with the whole starting team after the Thanksgiving game." "Not the whole team. Just the defense.")

There are also instances when we want more from the stories' protagonist -- more drama, more angst, more commitment. But Buddy is interesting not so much for what he does as for what he notices. "Bad Haircut" coasts through the distances it marks out between observation and action with humor and with grace.

Ms. MacKay is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

Title: "Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies"

Author: Tom Perrotta

Publisher: Bridge Works

Length, price: 197 pages, $18.95 (paperback)

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