The Abstinence Teacher

Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
2007, 358 pages, hardcover, $24.95

the abstinence teacher of Tom Perrotta's eponymously titled book is Ruth Ramsey. She teaches sex-ed to the high school students of Stonewood Heights, an affluent Northeastern suburb in an unnamed state that is middle of the road in its political coloring, neither red nor blue. Ruth is a divorced 41-year-old who believes in a liberal pedagogy of common-sense: "Pleasure is Good, Shame is Bad, and Knowledge is Power." When one of her ninth graders compares oral sex to French kissing a toilet seat, the teacher makes a glib, but fateful observation: "from what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it." Ruth, the empirically minded science teacher, has failed to recognize that today's America is undergoing a cultural sea change as secularists and Christians vie for the minds (and souls) of society's youth. Tolerance is pass. A local evangelical church, the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, compels the school board to adopt a conservative health curriculum, one that proselytizes abstinence as the foolproof method to avoid pregnancy as well as the plague of STDs. Condoms are not an option, of course, because they promote underage sex. Reluctantly, Ruth complies with a program she finds not only inaccurate, but immoral. To make matters worse, her fifteen-year-old daughter, Eliza, has been secretly reading the Bible. She wants to go to church like the other girls. Now Ruth gets it-she's under siege by the Christian right.

A novelist with a political or cultural agenda may develop tunnel vision. Instead of writing satirical fiction, said novelist may find him- or herself lecturing from the secular pulpit, sacrificing drama for punditry. Luckily, Perrotta is too good a writer to make that mistake. Readers of his previous work (the superb collection of linked stories, Bad Hair Cut: Stories of the Seventies, or his forays into suburban satire, Election and Little Children) will therefore be relieved that the author refused to turn The Abstinence Teacher into a polemic against the creep of Christian evangelical values in the public forum. Perrotta establishes an ideological balance through the sympathetic character of the soccer coach, Tim Mason, a congregant of the Tabernacle, as well as a self-described warrior for Christ. Perrotta knows that the lives of sinners are far more compelling-dramatically speaking-than the lives of saints. We discover that Tim, before he became Coach Tim, wandered alone in the dark woods of temptation. He played bass in a rock band, he ruined his marriage with a cocaine/alcohol addiction, and he lusted after nubile groupies. Then Tim found Jesus and was Born Again.

Now Tim is the beloved soccer coach of Ruth's thirteen-year-old daughter, Maggie. Youth athletics places the ideologically antagonistic adults on the same sideline. But when Coach Tim initiates a post-game prayer circle, Ruth calls foul. The Youth Soccer League is funded by public dollars and she argues that it's a breach of the separation between church and state. Off the field, Tim and Ruth have a collision of their own, but instead of acrimony, the believer and the skeptic discover that they share the burden of past mistakes: both are divorced and lonely; both are caretakers of teenagers who are becoming increasingly distant. Ruth's daughters-Maggie and Eliza-have embraced the Christian community that persecutes their mother, while Tim's daughter, Abby, has a habit of rolling her eyes at her father's attempts to connect. He's a Jesus-freak, after all. It's no mystery that Ruth and Tim are expected to come together by the novel's conclusion. Like two converging forwards, the lonely suburbanite couple maneuver toward a common goal, joined by the mutual experience of human vulnerability.

The barbs of Perrotta's satire pierce the flesh of Christians who flaunt their faith, those believers who act as if they have God on speed-dial. Tim Mason carries himself with the wisdom of a man who understands that struggle itself is a religious principle. He tries to reconcile his spiritual beliefs with the secular temptations of his past and the shadows they cast onto his present life. With Jesus as a role model, however, it's hard for an ex-drug addict to feel spiritually adequate. Ruth, like Tim, doesn't believe that her own past indiscretions, or Tim's sins, should be completely absolved. She asks: "When we disavow our mistakes, aren't we also disavowing our identities?" Her question answers an early scene in which the pastor of Tim's congregation compares temptation to a fungus, and therefore reduces human desire to a moldy pest that needs only to be exposed to the "fresh air and sunlight of Jesus Christ" to be made clean. The sterile bromide blends self-help philosophy with the language of an Ajax commercial. It applies to the dark crannies beneath a household sink, not the cavernous depths of the human heart.

-Colin Tangeman

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