The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

Connie Ogle
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Conflicts over sex and religion shake Tom Perrotta's latest satire of suburbia.

The Abstinence Teacher

Publisher: St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 9780312358334
Author: Tom Perrotta
Price: $24.95
Length: 358
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-10

Over the course of five novels and a collection of short stories, Tom Perrotta has laid claim to the prime real estate of upwardly mobile suburbia, hilariously probing its leafy, soccer-obsessed, McMansion-lined streets. No component of life here is safe; crime watches are as ripe for satire as is social one-upmanship. Perrotta has skewered politics, parenting, the educational system, marriage and sex, the sacred cows of family life unspared by his sardonic insight and incisive humor.

The Abstinence Teacher is not a sequel to Little Children, his previous novel, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film by Todd Field, with a screenplay co-written by its author, but it's a logical follow-up to Perrotta's exploration of the culture wars as they play out with surprising ferocity in parks and schools. Little Children introduced two adulterers who conduct an affair as their hometown panics over the return of a sex offender. The Abstinence Teacher further stirs the mix by introducing evangelical Christianity and its effects on a similar community.

Sex is also a big part of the discussion, and that's as it should be according to Ruth Ramsey, a divorced mother of two and the high-school Health & Family Life teacher in Stonewood Heights. Ruth -- who "used to joke, in simpler times, that the entire ninth grade Sex Ed curriculum could be reduced to three words: "Condoms, Condoms, Condoms!" -- is in trouble with the school board after a casual comment in class about oral sex: "Some people like it." A student's parents, members of The Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, threaten a lawsuit, and the Sex Ed curriculum is quickly revamped as Wise Choices for Teens, an abstinence program complete with a Virginity Counselor and what Ruth considers "shameless fear mongering, backed up by half-truths and bogus examples and inflammatory rhetoric."

It would be easy enough for Perrotta to stop there and take aim at evangelical pushiness and hypocrisy and the documented ineffectiveness of chastity courses, but he is not content to push an agenda. The novel devotes equal narrative time to the problems of Tabernacle member Tim Mason, divorced dad, former addict and coach of a girls' soccer team that includes Ruth's daughter. Like Ruth, Tim is in a bit of trouble after a spontaneous outburst: In the wake of a particularly intense soccer match, he leads his team in a prayer of thanks, only to be confronted by a furious Ruth. Her complaint to the soccer league about his behavior could cost him his coaching job. If his disapproving ex-wife, who has legally banned him from including their daughter in Tabernacle activities, finds out about his public prayer, she may well overhaul the custody arrangement.

The Abstinence Teacher bounces between Ruth and Tim and tugs effectively at our warring views on morality and our foolish insistence on its absolutes. Perrotta challenges perceptions in unexpected ways; even the most liberal reader may be shocked by the revelation that one of Ruth's gay friends was molested by a priest at 13. She is shocked, but he shrugs it off, unfazed. "I did enjoy it, and I certainly volunteered for more."

Perrotta's greatest weapon is irony, and he brandishes it with flair and wit. Despite fealty to their respective belief systems, neither Ruth nor Tim is satisfied with their lives. Ruth the sex-ed teacher is celibate and not by choice. Religious Tim, having abandoned drinking, drugs and the Grateful Dead, is remarried to "the ideal Christian wife -- modest, affectionate, sincerely devoted to his happiness," but his marriage is growing strained, endangered by daydreams about his ex and a nagging suspicion that he has made a poor decision despite the counsel of The Tabernacle's devoted Pastor Dennis.

Perrotta piles on more ironic developments: Ruth's daughters suddenly want to go to church, while Tim's daughter seems most concerned with the material world, whether it's her iPod or The Apprentice (Donald Trump is her horrifying choice for an essay on "The Man I Most Admire"). Whatever your beliefs, Perrotta indicates, life is "hard," and you simply don't have all the answers, even if you like to think you do.

What also makes The Abstinence Teacher remarkable is that Perrotta the satirist honestly assesses why people might turn to organized religion. Tim's life was a mess before The Tabernacle; now he's sober and more thoughtful, and the church community has expanded his world view: "The communities in which he'd claimed membership were disappointingly narrow and homogenous compared to this one. The punks and the Deadheads were overwhelmingly white, suburban and young. ... Not like here, where you saw grandmothers and little kids, people in wheelchairs, whole families, interracial couples, immigrants who barely spoke a word of English, college teachers, 12 steppers, cancer patients who'd lost their hair, lonely people."

Loneliness, as it turns out, is what truly links Ruth and Tim and, maybe, all of us. If we are our mistakes, as Ruth says, then perhaps connection is what we need most. That and a kick-in-the-pants reminder like Perrotta's novel -- generous, amusing, shocking, thought-provoking and more than a little familiar.

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