Carlo Rotella

Binding Boston with a story

By Carlo Rotella
August 30, 2010

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SINCE 1998, when the Seattle Public

Library came up with a program called “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,’’ hundreds of American cities and towns have mounted civic read-and-discuss projects. The idea is simple: a lot of people who might not feel they have much in common other than living in the same place read the same thing and then gather to talk about it.

In addition to their other benefits, like promoting literacy, these programs try to build community by bonding citizens to each other through the shared experience of reading, reflection, and discussion. In that sense, they’re intellectual cousins of the team-building exercises commonly staged at corporate retreats and freshman orientations. Even if discussions grow heated, it’s all to the good. Neighbors who debate the meaning or merit of a work of literature are engaging substantively with each other, an experience that grows rarer in an age of electronic isolation.

Boston, one of the most bookish of American cities but also one of the most standoffish, has finally joined the movement. The organizers of the Boston Book Festival announced last week that they have chosen Tom Perrotta’s short story “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face’’ as the inaugural selection for the One City, One Story program. They will distribute bound copies of the story for free at libraries, subway stations, community centers, and other venues, as well as online, and they plan a number of public discussions, including a big event at the festival on Oct. 16.

Perrotta, who lives in Belmont, enjoys both critical respect and popular success (thanks in part to the movie adaptations of his novels “Election’’ and “Little Children’’), so he’s a logical choice. But Perrotta sees “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face’’ as “an unusual choice.’’ He said, “There’s often some kind of consensus pick for these one city, one book things, a choice that will offend the least people. As a writer I try to find uncomfortable places to probe. I’m impressed that the festival would take this story on.’’

Set at a Little League championship game in suburban New Jersey, where Perrotta grew up, the story explores the inner turmoil of the home plate umpire, Jack, whose family has fallen apart. Perrotta told me that Jack, who narrates his own story, is “a guy in the very beginnings of a transition.’’ Jack may be fumbling toward greater self-knowledge and tolerance, but he’s still a mass of blind spots and sore feelings. He broods about his son’s failure to conform to Jack’s notion of a regular guy, about his own violently graceless reaction to it, and about the increasing numbers of Asian immigrants in his town — including the star pitcher Lori Chang and her father. Jack’s baffled, hurt, defensive, querulous, honest voice gives the story its vitality.

When I asked Perrotta what he hoped to get out of participating in One City, One Story, he said, “I love the idea of literature and democracy. I’m pleased that I might get the chance to talk to some people I wouldn’t normally get a chance to talk to. I’m used to technical questions from writing students, but I expect that people will want to express their anxieties about wanting to be a good parent, or share their coming-out stories.’’ They may also have a thing or two to say about ethnic differences, or the perception of them, and I can envision Little League parents offering extended critiques of Jack’s umpiring.

Civic read-and-discuss programs bring a writer face to face with how all kinds of people, not just fellow writers and critics, read fiction. Some readers of “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face’’ will want to talk about theme, motif, and language, but others will be more alert for how the story resonates with their own experience: a similar incident in their family or neighborhood, a related feeling of uncertainty or triumph.

Stuart Dybek, whose book “The Coast of Chicago’’ was featured in the One Book, One Chicago program in 2004, told me, “People can read right past the exaggeration, right past the metaphorical stuff.’’ Dybek’s stories often have magical realist touches, including one in which a man in an elephant suit returns to his old neighborhood. “They would say, ‘Man, you really got it, you really nailed it, that’s what it was really like,’ and I was thinking, ‘So, you saw that elephant walking around that church?’ ’’

Dybek was floored by the level of engagement he encountered. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,’’ he said. “As a writer you’re always hoping to connect with that abstraction called ‘the audience,’ and I never felt a deeper connection than with One Book. Suddenly the audience was not at all an abstraction.’’

Perrotta hopes for a similar sense of connection with a broad range of readers, which can be especially precious these days for a writer of literary fiction. “I’m kind of struggling with the marginalization of literature,’’ he said. “I’m hoping that stories and novels don’t go the way that poetry has, becoming a niche thing.’’

One City, One Story is, among other things, one attempt to keep literature in general circulation, out of the niche. So go read “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,’’ read it more than once, and take some time to reflect on it. Then go find someone to discuss it with.

Carlo Rotella is director of American Studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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