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Topic: Joe College by Tom Perrotta

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Subject: Joe College by Tom Perrotta
Date Posted: 12/17/2007 12:54 PM ET
Member Since: 9/11/2007
Posts: 399
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I finished reading this book today and I really liked it. I think Perrotta is a great storyteller and very funny. Did anyone else read it? What did you think of the main character Danny? At first I really liked him because neither of my parents finished college and I did so I could identify with that about him. But as the story progressed you see he's kind of a helpless jerk. Thoughts?

Date Posted: 12/21/2007 10:43 AM ET
Member Since: 2/28/2007
Posts: 2,164
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It's been a loooong time since I read this one, but I LOVE Tom Perrotta, he's one of my favorites.  You should read everything by him if you liked Joe College.  I don't remember much about the book, but I do remember having that impression about Danny - he was sort of more and more pathetic as the story went on and sort of created his own undoing. 

Date Posted: 12/21/2007 1:41 PM ET
Member Since: 9/11/2007
Posts: 399
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Yep, Perrotta is great. I've read Election and Little Children (I posted my thoughts about that book here.) I have the Wishbones and Abstinence Teacher on my WL...thought I might get one or the other for Christmas. ;)

One of the things I don't get about some people's reaction to this book is that they cannot separate their dislike of Danny from their feelings about the book as a whole. Perrotta is no Nabakov, but the device of an unsympathetic narrator/protagonist when well used is quite good.

Anyway I got a response so I was inspired to post and talk about some discussion questions. Let me know what you think.


1. In their final encounter, Cindy suggests that Danny has taught her an important lesson. What is this lesson? Is it helpful or harmful to Cindy? 

I think she won't take the message that she "deserves to be happy" the same way Danny does. She is a much more compassionate person, so I don't think she will put her happiness ahead of the well-being of others the way he does.

2. When he returns home for Spring Break, Danny has an epiphany of sorts, courtesy of a voice in his head: "I could just be myself, my father's son, living out my life in the town where I was born . . . . I could learn to love [Cindy] the way my father had learned to love my mother . . . . all that could be enough." Is this true? Or is Danny kidding himself?

I think he could have done it, but he didn't want to. I'm kind of ambivalent about this. There is a middle ground. He did not have to quit Yale if he wanted to support Cindy. He could have perhaps gotten a higher paying job and switched to part time, etc.

3. Who grows and changes more over the course of the novel, Danny or Cindy?

Cindy has shed some of her naivete, and left her mother in the care of her aunt, but is that really a significant amount of personal growth for her? I don't know.

4. Some readers feel that Danny gets off too easily in Joe College, that he's never really held accountable for his actions. How does Danny himself feel about this issue? What about the characters around him?

He takes his luck for granted. I think the other characters deeply resent him for that. Perrotta has said this book is semi-autobiographical...that makes me shudder.

5. What does Danny's journey in Joe College tell us about social mobility and social class in America?

I don't know. From what I've seen in my own limited experiences, social mobility is a combination of luck, talent, and hard work. The book makes this clear but glosses over how inequitable this really is.

6. Is Danny simply living out the American Dream, an updated version of the Horatio Alger myth? Or is he the beneficiary of a flawed system that gives special privileges and opportunities to a chosen few?

I think it's a mix of the two. Danny works very hard at his academics and on his father's business. But for every Danny there are a hundred others working just as hard or harder who will not reach his level of success.

7. The Lunch Monsters are a particular Perrotta creation. How do the thugs represent the author's attempt to flesh out Danny's guilt? Danny says, "There must have been something I was trying to prove by picking a fight with these guys," but it's not clear what Danny is trying to prove, or to whom. What do you feel he's trying to prove? Could it be an attempt to assuage his guilt over Cindy?

I didn't interpret it that way at all. I thought it was half machismo and half resentment at being stereotyped. At home he's a college boy and at Yale he's that middle class kid from jersey. He's trying to prove that he has an identity beyond those two labels. Why he would want that identity to be a guy who challenges the Lunch Monsters is beyond me.

8. At several points in the story, the author uses a pause and an absence of sound to indicate that a significant event has just occurred. How do these pauses provide a framework for the momentum of the story?

I didn't notice this. It's something to consider should I ever re-read it. I did read a comment about Perrotta's frequent use of pop music, how he always told us what songs were playing on the radio or turntable. I liked that, but others found it cheesy. I wonder if it was the music Perrotta was listening to as he was writing.

Last Edited on: 12/21/07 1:42 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 12/27/2007 11:23 PM ET
Member Since: 11/30/2007
Posts: 3
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I read this after I read Election and Little Children and was a bit disappointed. The thing I find so frustrating about Perotta is that he has great ideas but is hit or miss when it comes to the execution. His voice is a bit bland at times and I think the writing lacks too much energy.

Of the 3 LC was my favorite, so maybe he's getting better.