Older Tom Perrotta Novel Rings True for Reviewer

The Abstinence Teacher (2007)
Tom Perrotta
St. Martin’s Books ISBN # 0312358334
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I discovered Tom Perrotta after a delightful encounter with his 2012 publication, The Leftovers, which looked at a post-Rapture world in which those who thought themselves devout Christians were not spirited off the planet. An earlier work, The Abstinence Teacher, reveals that Perrotta was already honing a sword to swing at smug-certain evangelicals. (Perrotta claims that he was inspired to write The Abstinence Teacher after listening to self-described evangelical voters describe why they voted for George W. Bush in 2004.)

The Abstinence Teacher focuses on Ruth Ramsey, a 9th grade sex education teacher in a white, upper middle-class suburban school that could be just about anywhere (which is the point). Ruth is a born teacher, one who knows how to cut through the giggles, awkwardness, and bullshit that pours out of the hormonally challenged pores of youngsters who aren’t children any more, but surely aren’t responsible adults either. They listen because Ruth is that rarest of birds, an adult that doesn’t moralize. She tells her charges that pleasure is a good thing and that shame is usually bad, but you need to know what sex is all about before you engage in it or judge what others do. She’s also a divorced mother with two daughters–sullen Eliza and soccer star Maggie–and a problematic relationship with her ex-husband and his new wife. Ruth has been around the block a few times, but finds herself a bit lonely and envious of the relationship of her gay friends Randall and Gregory. But she plods along, making it her crusade to give kids accurate information about sex; that is, until Pasto Dennis and the Tabernacle of the Gospel of Truth, a non-aligned evangelical church, decide she’s teaching filth and promiscuity.

Full disclosure: I’ve experienced what Perrotta describes; the high school sex ed teacher at the high school at which I taught in the 1980s underwent similar travails at the hands of evangelical critics. The same group tried to target me because I refused to teach that abortion was a sin. (I was an American history teacher and didn’t take a “correct” position on abortion of any sort!) When Perrotta details the havoc wrought by self-proclaimed guardians of public morality, a lot of those unpleasant memories came back to me–as did gratitude for my teachers’ union!

Unlike what happened in my district, Ruth is told that she must alter her curriculum and teach students that abstinence is the path they should follow. Her dilemma is simple: How does one teach something one neither believes nor feels is possible? Belief is also under the microscope in the form of Tim Mason, a former drug abusing Deadhead turned Tabernacle evangelical who is also Maggie’s soccer coach. Turnabout is fair play; when Tim leads the publicly supported and socially diverse team in an impromptu prayer after a thrilling victory, Ruth hits the separation-of-church-and-state roof!

Things get awfully complicated thereafter. Tim is more like Maggie than she imagines. He too is divorced and has similar issues with his semi-estranged daughter, Abby, and his snooty upwardly mobile ex-wife and her lawyer husband. Plus, Ruth has to admit, she’s oddly attracted to Tim. And Tim, as it happens, is still a rock-and-roller at heart who has doubts about what God wants of him, and is increasingly bored with his second wife, Carrie, the dutiful Christian whom Pastor Dennis handpicked for him. Soon, Ruth and Tim find themselves symbols of other people’s values, desires, and power games.  

Perrotta tries to be a bit like his character Ruth in that he seeks not to judge what others do–unless those things infringe personally. One does, however, get the sense that those who think that life can be reduced to nostrums and one-size-fits-all morality trouble Perrotta, and that’s he simply being coy with his seemingly neutral observations. This book often lacks the subtlety of The Leftovers. Several of the characters are more paste-ups than real, and many of the situations feel contrived. (It is, for example, nearly inconceivable that Ruth’s union would allow several of the scenarios to unfold. Perrotta uses these to advance the plot, but they are improbable.) But, having firsthand experience with the Pastor Dennis types and having seen the damage meddlesome prigs can do, I’ll also say that The Abstinence teacher sets the right tone, even when it plays the wrong notes.--Rob Weir

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