Review by David Starkey
I must admit that I’ve never read Election, the novel by Tom Perrota on which the 1999 film—directed by Alexander Payne and starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick—was based. Still, that was a movie I loved: wickedly funny and bursting with satire, it follows a high achieving but obnoxious student running for school president and the civics teacher who comes to hate her.
In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, we meet the title character twenty-plus years later as she struggles with the lousy hand Fate has dealt her. After graduating from high school, Tracy attended Georgetown as an undergraduate and was just beginning law school at the same institution—a great future in front of her—when her mother’s illness required Tracy to come home and care for her. She’s now the assistant principle at Green Meadow High School in Green Meadow, New Jersey, and not loving it. Tracy’s alpha personality has not changed, but she’s been forced to flatten her ambitions in a beta job.
However, as the novel begins, Jack Weede, the current principle, has announced his retirement so that he can travel the country in a motorhome with his wife, a cancer survivor. Tracy senses an opportunity, especially when nerdy but superrich Kyle Dorfman, creator of the “Barky” app for people who prefer their dogs to live only on their phones, announces his desire to create a Hall of Fame for his alma mater. For political reasons, Tracy agrees to support the project, though it will mean celebrating Vito Falcone, the school’s only other celebrity, a former quarterback at GMHS who actually played—albeit very briefly—in the NFL.
The story is told in short chapters. Some—those by Tracy, Kyle, Jack, and two students on the Hall of Fame selection committee—are narrated in the first-person. Their voices are credible, even when Perrota places a heavy accent on comedy. We follow the other main characters—“Front Desk Diane” Blankenship, the school secretary; Vito Falcone; and Glenn Keeler, an “auxiliary” cop who couldn’t pass the physical, and whose brother, a suicide, was humiliated in high school by Vito—via third-person narration. There are a lot of voices, but they usually manage to say their piece precisely and in chronological order, so the plot isn’t hard to follow; in fact, it skips along at a brisk pace.
Telling much more would give away the clever ending, though Perrota should be commended for the skillful way he manages to skewer his characters without ever making us feel that he’s being unfair to them. Indeed, the more comic foibles the characters reveal about themselves, the more human they become.