Tracy Flick for Principal

Election, the satirical movie directed by Alexander Payne, met with critical euphoria when it opened in 1999. Election the satirical novel had occasioned less fuss when it came out the year before; indeed, its then-unknown author, Tom Perrotta, had barely managed to get it published. (“People don’t know whether it’s YA or adult,” his agent had told him. “They don’t know what to do with it.”) Both works used a gladiatorial high-school election to send up the national kind. But the movie had the magnificently chipper Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, a relentless candidate for student-body president who was both drill sergeant and object of sexual desire. “A buzzing flytrap of determined overachievement … ambitious to the point of dementia,” Wesley Morris wrote in the San Francisco Examiner. “Machiavelli-minded” and “pitiless,” Manohla Dargis wrote in LA Weekly. Roger Ebert compared Tracy to Sammy Glick, the protagonist of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, and the Broadway musical of the same name. Sammy Glick was shorthand for “backstabbing Jewish Hollywood operator,” until the anti-Semitism of the stereotype made it unacceptable. Tracy Flick, however, still has name recognition. If you want to say that a female politician is ruthlessly ambitious, you call her a Tracy Flick. The first Tracy was Elizabeth Dole. This year’s is the up-and-coming Republican representative Elise Stefanik. The ultimate Tracy, of course, was Hillary Clinton.

But then the Clinton-bashing became terrifying—“Lock her up!”—and the #MeToo movement opened our eyes to structural misogyny, and critics began to take another look at Tracy. Maybe her persistence was admirable, like Elizabeth Warren’s, rather than unhinged. Maybe she was a vulnerable teenager exploited by a teacher in “a textbook case of predatory grooming,” as A. O. Scott put it in 2019, 20 years after the film came out. Jim McAllister, the history teacher who narrates the movie along with Tracy and happens to be the groomer’s best friend, doesn’t touch the girl. Still, enraged by her brazen competitiveness and her red, red lips (and distraught over the firing of his fellow teacher), he slut-shames her and tries to sabotage her campaign by lining up a popular jock to run against her. The actor Matthew Broderick gives McAllister a bumbling charm, but watch the movie now and the charm comes off as oily; he’s more of a Humbert Humbert than an endearing screwup. Like Lolita, Scott observed, Election “invites misreading in a way that puts readers’ souls at risk.”

[Read: Hillary Clinton, Tracy Flick, and the reclaiming of female ambition]

Election the movie, these critics mean, not the novel. Tracy reinterpreters never bring up the book except to dismiss it as the lesser work. I disagree. I’d argue that it’s actually better—leaner, less broadly farcical, its characters more layered, its traps more subtle. The book consists of a series of monologues, each a master class in misdirection, self-justification, and the occasional glimmer of self-awareness. Perrotta’s Tracy doesn’t come off as sympathetic, exactly. But we learn about her threadbare life and the single mother who assiduously cultivates her daughter’s quest for success—the movie barely mentions them—and we’re given inklings of the pain that makes Tracy hold her chin so high. In short, Perrotta never sells Tracy out for a laugh. Payne, however, never stops playing Tracy for laughs, starting with the opening credits: While they roll, we watch her unfolding her campaign table with a slapstick militarism. The table legs slice upward like rifles being raised for an execution. They snap into place with sharp cracks.

By contrast, the novel opens with the history teacher setting himself up for a fall. Mr. M (the book’s version of Mr. McAllister) is one of those cool teachers who perch on their desk and keep everything relevant. He’s trying to eke out a civics lesson from a notorious rape case involving football players, a broomstick, and a developmentally disabled girl. When his students side with the jocks, he asks, “Don’t the strong have a responsibility not to hurt or humiliate the weak?” Moments afterward, he’ll set in motion his plot to hurt and humiliate Tracy. The way he sees it, he’s the weak one; Tracy’s a blitzkrieg. “She was a steamroller,” he says. “I wanted to slow her down before she flattened the whole school.”

With Tracy Flick Can’t Win, the sequel to Election the novel, Perrotta joins the ranks of the revisionists. The new book is harsher than the earlier one, reflecting the uglier tenor of our times, as well as, I suspect, Perrotta’s desire to clear up any possible confusion about whose side he’s on. You will not close this book commiserating with the likes of Mr. M. Nor will you wonder whether you missed the nuances. Tracy Flick Can’t Win is frankly didactic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Satire has always had an admonitory function, and besides, some people are so obnoxious that a writer has to slow-walk the reader through their awfulness. Plus, Perrotta has what it takes to revisit the past without being predictable.

Roughly two decades after the benighted election, Tracy is back where she started. She made it to Georgetown on a full scholarship, but then went home during law school to take care of her dying mother and never returned to the glide path to political stardom. She did get a Ph.D. in education, and has been at her old high school, Green Meadow, ever since. She has become the assistant principal, and once again she’s vying for the top slot—the principal has just announced his retirement. She’s still hyper-competent, still not well liked.

Only one thing about her has changed: She’s been given a soul. She berates herself for being a loser, but we know that she gave up her dreams because she’s a mensch. She’s finally starting to drop her brittle defenses. She’d always dismissed that tenth-grade affair as “a few regrettable weeks of my teenage life” and refused to blame her seducer, who she figured had been punished enough. “That was my narrative, the one I’d lived with for a very long time,” she says (like the original, the sequel is a series of monologues). But America is having its post–Harvey Weinstein sexual reckoning, and as “one powerful man after another” is “toppled from his pedestal, exposed as a sexual predator,” she begins to wonder whether she’d been damaged in ways she hasn’t let herself acknowledge; the old narrative, she says, “was starting to feel a little shaky.” She had been very lonely—is still very lonely—and her teacher had taken advantage of that, isolating her, overpraising her, freezing her into an adolescent belief in her own superiority that has done her no favors.

Green Meadow High School, though, is the same center of jock worship it has always been. This takes a while to become apparent. Perrotta has introduced a new kind of creep, a tech entrepreneur, Kyle Dorfman, who left Silicon Valley to return to Green Meadow because it seemed like a better place to raise kids. But the high school has slipped academically and athletically, and no longer fields a winning football team, as it did back in the early ’90s. Dorfman, who has become the president of the school board, figures he should creatively disrupt things. He meets with Tracy to discuss an idea. Will it be a new roof? Merit pay for the best teachers? Smarter test prep?

Of course not. Dorfman wants to endow a Hall of Fame. The school board loves the idea. The selection committee never considers the “musicians and astronauts and public servants and stay-at-home moms” who Dorfman had claimed would be honored. Instead, it fixes immediately on Vito Falcone, the greatest football player in the history of Green Meadow and the only one to go on to the NFL, until a knee injury sidelined him. It’s “the same old crap as always,” Tracy thinks. “From as far back as I could remember, no matter where I went or what I did, there was always a Vito Falcone. The Golden Boy. The Handsome Jock. The Big Man on Campus.”

Since Election, Perrotta has published seven novels and short-story collections, most of them set in suburbia, thereby acquiring a reputation as a suburban novelist—not another Cheever or Updike, exactly, whose hamlets, however soul-destroying, kept up a veneer of gracious gentility. Perrotta’s are unmistakably in decline. His characters don’t dream of upward mobility. Dorfman sees that his hometown is “less vital. More pessimistic about the future.” He and his wife hire an architecture firm to build them a modernist house. Jack Weede, the retiring principal, observes that the Dorfman spread, “three misaligned boxes stacked one on top of the other,” makes the other houses on the street “look even more dull and hopeless than they already were.”

But I don’t think socioeconomic decay is Perrotta’s central concern. What intrigues him is just as pernicious, and not unrelated: American masculinity, or, to be more specific, bro culture. Plots and subplots in many of Perrotta’s better-known works—such as Little Children (2004), The Abstinence Teacher (2007), and Mrs. Fletcher (2017)—turn on a male character’s efforts to free himself from destructive norms, or at least become aware of them. To put this another way, Perrotta is simply more enthralled by how men school one another than he is by anything else. His dialogue is never as exuberant as when his guys talk guy talk, reveling in “the ass on that girl” (Election), debating the relative merits of Hot Kayla and Less-Hot Kayla (Mrs. Fletcher), rejoicing in the thrill of fucking while driving (The Abstinence Teacher). Principal Weede wistfully recalls that, back at the start of his career, in the 1970s, teachers debated “the best tits, the nicest legs, the sexiest mouth”—a glimpse of the predatory swamp Tracy swam in when she was in high school two decades later. Sexual boasting, that quintessential guy-bonding ritual, is passed down from father to son and mentor to mentee. According to Weede, he learned that “girls were fair game” from his superiors, such as the head of the math department, who bragged about having a female student go up to the blackboard every day to write out equations because he wanted to “enjoy the view.” Men know now not to say that sort of thing in public; instead, they pickle themselves in internet porn. Their sons stream it 24/7. Really, Perrotta seems to be asking in Mrs. Fletcher, how much can we fault the basically well-meaning college kid Brendan Fletcher for not foreseeing the consequences of saying to the intersectional feminist who is fellating him, “Suck it, bitch”?

Tracy Flick Can’t Win replaces sexual spectacle with football mania. It’s equally unedifying. No one at Green Meadow remembers that, back in the day, its Hall of Fame nominee was a world-class prick. Vito Falcone ghosted his knocked-up girlfriends, bullied the vulnerable, and betrayed his Black teammate and best friend by never writing the letter he’d promised he would to explain the racist incident that doomed his friend’s collegiate and athletic career.

The adult Falcone is a cautionary figure, a man broken by the manly vocation that was supposed to bring him glory. He has symptoms, such as brain fog, that come from too many untreated concussions. He has refused to tell anyone about his condition, though, not even his doctor. Instead, he began drinking, “because if you were drunk and your brain malfunctioned, you could blame it on the alcohol.” Alcoholism led to spousal abuse and the proverbial descent to rock bottom. Now he’s trying to make amends, as recommended by his recovery program. This entails apologetic visits and phone calls that usually confuse or infuriate people who have done their best to move on.

Perrotta doesn’t write only about men, of course. His female protagonists probably outnumber the male ones, and they’re perfectly well drawn. But they’re not quite as interesting. They’re better people, smarter, more self-aware, nicer—too nice, perhaps. Tracy’s saving grace is that she’s abrasive and intermittently out of control, barging furiously into parties she wasn’t invited to (though she should have been), sabotaging herself by admitting to the local school superintendent how much she hates football, kicking and crumpling the door of Dorfman’s Tesla when she realizes that he has stabbed her in the back. And she refuses to relinquish her loveless solitude. She breaks up with the most eligible bachelor in town when he tries to get serious, even though she likes him, and repels repeated attempts by Dorfman’s wife, Marissa, to befriend her.

What Tracy mostly does in the novel is note carefully how men go about derailing her promotion. Just as, in Election, Mr. M recruited a jock, Paul, to defeat Tracy, in the sequel the school superintendent brings a venerated ex-coach into the candidate pool, four months after the application deadline has passed. Paul was a sweet kid in over his head; Larry Holleran, the head coach during Green Meadow’s “golden age,” when the whole town turned out to cheer on the football team, is the kind of hard-ass who gets clapped on the back for refusing to tolerate “losers”—even though he himself, in additional roles as science teacher and then assistant principal, was openly lazy and inept. Everybody swoons at the thought that he could make the football team great again. And he knows how to work a room with “an easy masculine charm,” while Tracy, marooned at the outsiders’ table in that same room, can do nothing but seethe. History has repeated itself. Once again, it’s “me against Paul, Competence vs. Popularity.”

Tracy Flick just can’t win. Actually, she can, but only at an appalling price. The novel’s surprise ending is both shocking and inevitable, given the abuses of power that Green Meadow has yet to deal with. But things don’t turn out as badly for Tracy as one might expect. For one thing, she finally stops rebuffing Marissa, a sympathetic woman also disenchanted with her blowhard husband.

[Read: The brilliant nihilism of The Leftovers]

Indeed, Tracy is not the tragic figure in this novel. That would be Vito Falcone, who tries to rise to the Herculean task of repairing the harm done by him and by everything that chews up boys and men like him—his coach and his sport and his social impunity, “everybody acting like your shit didn’t stink,” he thinks. “Because after a while you started to believe it too, and a person like that could do a lot of damage.” Perrotta’s female protagonists are stymied, but his male protagonists are stunted, often in ways that lead straight to disaster. The best of them realize they’ve got to recover their humanity. Perrotta makes that look pretty hard.

This article appears in the June 2022 print edition with the headline “Tracy Flick for Principal.”