In The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face, Tom Perrotta does a brilliant job convincing the reader to sympathize with his flawed narrator, Jack. Right away, Jack proves to be bitter, jealous, and pessimistic. He loathes his neighbor, Carl, for having a better life than he himself has, which is his own fault in the first place. “Embarrassed” by and unable to deal with his son, who he thought showed an “unhealthy interest” in all things feminine and wasn’t “normal” like the boys next door, Jack had eventually snapped, punched Jason, and broken his nose. Consequently, his wife divorced him and got a restraining order, and he isn’t able to see his kids freely. Additionally, Jack practically admits to having a crush on a young girl who plays baseball, which anyone would agree is morally wrong. However, Jack’s complete and utter honesty is precisely why we don’t think badly of him and feel as if we’re on his side.
By using first-person narrative, Perrotta allows us to enter Jack’s mind and know his innermost thoughts and feelings. We are aware of his severe regret over hitting his son certainly more than his wife will ever be. We understand his distress over raising a child whom others might view as abnormal and hence view Jack as a failure of a father. Jack’s memory of slapping Jason allows us to follow his thought process as it happened, the reason proving to be years of built-up stress causing him to reach his breaking point when Jason says something appalling. The second hit, the one that broke Jason’s nose, is pardoned slightly by Jack’s instinctive rage at Jason actually hitting back.
First-person also lets Jack explain himself and justify his words or actions, such as when he’s (almost inappropriately) describing Lori Chang. Though he says there’s “something undeniably sexual about her presence” and that if he were her age he’d have “a hopeless crush on her,” the reader sees that he doesn’t actually mean this is an inappropriate way; he almost apologizes for having these thoughts and says, “I hope it’s okay for me to talk like this.” Usually, a grown man describing a young girl – his kids’ age, especially – as “sexual” would be thought of as perverted and morally wrong. In this scenario, the reader isn’t as bothered by it.
Perrotta constructs Jack as a character who, when viewed from the outside, probably seems to have questionable behavior and many faults. However, by engineering the narrator’s personality to be reflective and remorseful, Perrotta successfully ends up with a protagonist who’s relatable and an average person. His cleverly crafted main character is just one factor contributing to this short story’s success.