All satire has a certain measure of futility built into it. If you were really serious about solving a problem, the reader can't help thinking, you wouldn't be sitting around crafting a gently mocking novel about it; you'd be out there doing something. The real targets of satire tend to be impervious to it, anyway. As Jonathan Swift put it, "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own." Of course, Swift is talking about far less sophisticated readers than you and I. Poor suckers.
But Tom Perrotta's suburban satire, Little Children (St. Martin's; 355 pages), is almost certainly talking about somebody around here. Perrotta is probably best known as the author of Election, a novel about a vicious race for class president at a New Jersey high school that became a satisfyingly nasty movie. He didn't invent the notion that high school sucks, nor is he breaking new ground when he reveals that American suburbs are petri dishes of ennui and alienation. But he shows admirable zeal in prosecuting the case, and he comes as close as anybody to answering a not unimportant question: If the suburbs are the perfect community, the incarnation in grass and sunlight of American affluence, then how come life there is such hell?
The hero of Little Children, to the extent that it has one, is Sarah, a woman with a master's degree who finds herself at the age of thirtysomething watching her 3 year-old daughter frolic in a manicured playground, surrounded by a coven of fellow mothers who are capable of discussing only "the eating, sleeping, and defecating habits of their offspring, the merits of certain local nursery schools, and the difficulty of sticking to an exercise routine." For fun, she fantasizes about the host of Blue's Clues. Ouch. Todd, the iceberg to Sarah's Titanic, is a genial and hunky ex-jock who spends his days wrangling his toddler and dazedly preparing to flunk the bar exam for the third time.
Sarah and Todd are extramarital sex waiting to happen. But the course of hot, forbidden lust never did run smooth, and Perrotta throws in its way, among other things, a recently paroled child molester named Ronnie McGorvey. An evil, curdled mama's boy, Ronnie, in a perverse way, seems to personify the selfish desires and stunted soul of the suburbs. The people we meet in Little Children are bewildered, frozen in shock at the tepidity of the present, even though they have worked their whole lives to get exactly where they are.
Disappointed academics like Sarah have somehow become the novelist's shorthand for the middle-class everyman. Paul Trilby, the hero of James Hynes' Kings of Infinite Space (St. Martin's; 341 pages), is the proud possessor of a Ph.D. in English, an illustrious achievement that has earned him a job as an office temp at the General Services Division of the Texas Department of General Services. TxDoGS, as its denizens call it, is a dreary cubicle farm consecrated to obscure bureaucratic functions. When a co-worker dies at his desk while working overtime on a pointless assignment, Paul's low-level anomie turns to panic at the prospect of "an eternity of meaningless work in an empty office in an eternal twilight."