“Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” by Tom Perrotta (Scribner)
Tracy Flick, the character created by Tom Perrotta in his 1998 novel “Election” and immortalized by Reese Witherspoon in the film version a year later, is back. Perrotta has set his darkly comic sequel, “Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” in a different New Jersey high school some 20 years after Tracy’s notorious bid to become student body president.
A lot has changed. The suburbs are looking dingy, #MeToo is in full swing, and Tracy, who once aspired to be the first female U.S. president, has settled for assistant principal at Green Meadow High. Years before, she had had to drop out of law school to care for her ailing mom. Along the way, she accidentally got pregnant, and when the novel opens, she’s raising her 11-year-old daughter alone. But while her circumstances may be straitened, her ambition still burns bright. So, when her boss announces his retirement, she sets her sights on the top job.
In “Election,” Tracy’s nemesis was Mr. M., the vengeful civics teacher memorably played by Matthew Broderick. In the follow-up, it’s Kyle Dorfman, a tech bro who made a fortune in Silicon Valley by inventing a virtual pet app “Barky” that barks out its thanks whenever you feed it or take it for a walk.
After an extramarital affair nearly sinks his marriage, he slinks back to Green Meadow and becomes school board president. The last name is telling. Yes, he’s a dork, but a rich one, so people, including Tracy, have to pay attention when he floats a grandiose scheme to build a high school hall of fame. Well aware that the school has more pressing needs — “a new roof, merit pay … water fountains you can actually drink from” —Tracy goes along with the proposal because she needs his support.
When it emerges that the leading candidate for the hall of fame is a washed up former professional football player already experiencing signs of traumatic brain injury, Tracy is indignant — and Perrotta has nearly all the plot points in place to drive the novel to its shattering conclusion.
“Tracy Flick Can’t Win” is brilliant, biting satire. Perrotta never belabors a point or uses more words than absolutely necessary even as he takes on society’s most intractable problems, including racism, gun violence and toxic masculinity. Indeed, the novel is so lean and taut it almost reads like a screenplay, leading one to wonder whether Witherspoon would ever reprise her role as the inimitable Tracy Flick.