What Can We Steal From Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones?

Title of Work and its Form: The Wishbones, novel
Author: Tom Perrotta
Date of Work: 1997
Where the Work Can Be Found: The novel is available in paperback at all fine bookstores.  You should run out and buy it immediately.  You can also get the book from Amazon.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Gosh, I love Tom Perrotta’s early work.  (Don’t worry; I love his more recent work, too.  Just in a different way.)  The Wishbones is an entertaining read, but also packs a big emotional wallop.  Dave plays in The Wishbones, a wedding band that doesn’t make much money.  They do, however, have an awful lot of fun.  The fun/money ratio is getting to be a problem as Dave gets older and more serious about Julie, his on-again/off-again girlfriend of FIFTEEN YEARS.  When a patriarch of the wedding band community dies during a showcase, Dave goes into shock, leading him to finally, at long last, propose to Julie.  Only the next morning does he realize that he doesn’t want to get married.  I don’t want to ruin the twists and turns; let’s just say that Dave learns a lot about himself and a lot about life.  (One unexpected lesson: it’s possible to write a pretty great musical about the Kennedy Assassination.)

Perrotta’s third-person narrator is in on the joke and along for the ride.  When you sit down with the book, it’s clear that Perrotta wants his narrator to help him accomplish a few goals: to entertain, to tug on heartstrings and to tickle your funny bone.  How does he do this?  The narrator is completely honest about Dave, even when it makes the guy look like a massive jerk.  For example, here’s how the second chapter starts.  It’s the next morning, immediately after Dave proposed to Julie:

He woke the next morning with a consciousness–it felt something like a hangover–of having made a terrible mistake.  He couldn’t figure out how it had happened, how he’d allowed years of resolve to crumble in a single moment of weakness.  In the half darkness of his bedroom, he fantasized about calling and rescinding the offer.

“I’m not ready,” he’d explain.  “I don’t have a steady job or any money in the bank.  You deserve someone more reliable, a husband you can count on.”  He figured he’d leave out the part about not believing himself capable of a lifetime of sexual fidelity.

And how does the fiancee respond in his fantasy?

The imaginary Julie listened carefully, her brow knitting into wavy lines of concentration.  “I understand, Dave.  It would be crazy for us to get married right now.  But I do want to continue having sex with you.”  Her voice dipped into a more sultry register.  “In fact, I want to have sex with you right now.”

The fantasy sequence accomplishes a lot:

  1. The concept is funny.  There really isn’t a woman around who would react in the way Dave imagines Julie might.
  2. The fantasy reflects upon the immaturity in Dave’s character.  He’s not such a bad guy, but he is a little too selfish to truly make Julie happy.  He still has a somewhat adolescent mindset; instead of thinking about adult responsibilities, he’s thinking about how breaking off an engagement will get him laid.
  3. The fantasy reflects upon the maturity in Dave’s character.  Dave has SOME measure of self-awareness.  He knows that what he has done is pretty crummy and understands that he must get out.  He just can’t get out in the right way.

It’s a strange kind of praise, but Perrotta is a master of writing material that is ostensibly written by his characters.  (I LOVE the letters from Cindy in Joe College.)  The Wishbones required Perrotta to write some of the poetry of Marlene Fragment in addition to lyrics for The Grassy Knoll (the JFK assassination musical).  Dave’s friend Ian is a decent man, if a little private.  He’s been working on The Grassy Knoll for a long time, but has been reluctant to share his work.  Much to Dave’s surprise, it’s pretty good.

About halfway through the book, Perrotta recounts the development of The Grassy Knoll and describes some of the breakthroughs Ian had during the composition of the work.  Originally, the musical was only about JFK being shot.  Eventually:

Ian realized the song could move in an entirely different direction–instead of being about JFK, it could be about the audience.  Once he had this insight, the lyrics pretty much wrote themselves.

Do you see what Mr. Perrotta is doing?  He’s slyly giving us advice as to how we can improve our own writing.  Whether we’re writing about the assassination of JFK, genocide in Rwanda, the Holocaust or the red carpet premiere of Paris Hilton’s latest movie, we’re obliged to think about the world our characters inhabit.  Dave doesn’t live in a vacuum; he is influenced by people around him.  Those people influence those people…before you know it, your story touches everyone on the planet!

What Should We Steal?

  • Decide what kind of relationship your narrator will have with your reader.   In The Wishbones, the third-person narrator has full understanding that many of Dave’s actions are selfish.  In addition to honestly reporting Dave’s thoughts, the narrator also allies himself (herself?) with the reader, interjecting with the same judgments we would have.  For example, “Luckily for Dave, Julie didn’t hear.”
  • Populate the world your characters inhabit with the documents they produce.  The reader will never meet so many of the people you breathe to life.  Your protagonist, however, will seem more realistic if he had a third grade teacher, a favorite Spice Girl and chocoholic tendencies, just like everyone else.  Put extra effort into making the documents that your characters create in the standard course of their lives.  When you include a love note in a novel, it should be clear that the note was written by the character, not by the person whose name is on the book jacket.

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