This wonderful first novel is about a guy who starts off with all the chips stacked against him and still comes out a winner. It's an underdog novel, and the underdog is a most satisfying hero, for more than any other protagonist, the underdog is the one we love to love. Perry L. Crandall, the underdog of "Lottery," is profoundly lovable.
Perry says he is "not retarded. You have to have an IQ number less than 75 to be retarded," he explains. "I read that in Reader's Digest. I am not. Mine is 76." This one-point distinction is important to Perry. The underdog, who is also sometimes cast as literature's knowing fool, has a corner on the truth, and Perry understands exactly how dangerous and wrong such labels can be. He doesn't like "retarded," but "slow" he can live with, and slow, as we know from the example of the tortoise (another version of the underdog), always wins the race.
All the familiar ingredients are in this novel: the slow guy with the heart of gold and the disquieting habit of seeing things (and people) for what they are, the unscrupulous family (see Cinderella's evil stepsisters), the unsuitable but loving friends with their steadfast loyalty and kindness. The antidote to the blurry smear of these cliches is a kind of winning particularity. Patricia Wood's portrait of Perry is so vivid and funny and poignant and joyful that it avoids the disappointing flatness of the predictable.
Abandoned by his parents at birth, Perry is raised by his fiercely loving, wisecracking grandmother in Everett, Wash. There isn't much money to go around, but they have a happy life governed by simple pleasures -- bingo, Friday night at the movies, Sunday night spaghetti -- and a sense of their own good fortune. The "L" in Perry L. Crandall, Gram tells him, stands for Lucky.
Gram knows what Perry needs. She makes him read the dictionary to arm him against the world, one word at a time, and she fills his head with useful advice: "Ignore him, Perry! He's a jerk! There are jerks all over. Everybody has jerks in their lives." Perry has a job at Holsted's Marine Supply, where he is watched over by Gary, who owns the place, and by his friend Keith, a swearing, alcoholic, downward-spiraling, shell-shocked Vietnam vet with a falling-apart truck and a leaky sailboat and a broken heart. Next to Perry himself, Keith is the novel's most bravura portrait. It's hard to make readers like a fat loudmouth with food stuck in his teeth and sinkhole breath, but Wood has done it. When Cherry, the tattooed princess of this fairy tale, falls in love with Keith, we buy it completely.
Gram dies early in the novel, leaving Perry as a young adult to the evil devices of his creepy mother and his sharky brothers and their harpy wives, who shortchange him in every way possible. "You're so goddamned suggestible," Gram had despaired. "Suggestible and honest! A terrible combination! Terrible! They'll take advantage of you." She was right, of course, as she was about most things, and Perry loses nearly everything before his luck finally turns.
When he wins $12 million in the Washington State Lottery, his awful relatives and plenty of strangers are on him like glue; suddenly, everybody wants to befriend him, and no one uses the word "retard" anymore. But an important element of the underdog novel is that the hero's intelligence be grounded in truth that pierces all the murk strewn by the pompous and self-serving jackasses of the world. Perry's study of life and language has taught him a lot: "A hoot is a thing that is much funnier after you're dead," for instance, and " Lingering is a word that means costing a lot of money to die." Perry may be slow, but his motives are absolutely good. He has the wisdom of Solomon and the heart of a lion, and his decision about what to do with his winnings, while it may not surprise readers, still feels satisfying.
Some bitter soul may complain about the novel's upbeat ending, but Wood seems to understand that such an ending need not be a dodge. Instead, it can reveal a path, one lit by the good intentions of a pure heart. Perry L. Crandall is the thinking man's guide to a happy life.