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


Margaret Thatcher's Death Nothing to Mourn

Thanks to Lloyd Cellus for this appropriate comment from filmmaker Ken Loach.

In 1997, Scotland voted in favor of “devolution,” a referendum that allowed Scots to transfer most of the powers of government away from Westminster and put sovereignty into the hands of a new Scottish Parliament. Next year the Scots will vote on leaving Great Britain altogether and setting up a fully independent nation. It’s too soon to tell how that vote will turn out, but if the Scots do leave, we can date for certain the beginning of a serious independence movement: 1979. That was year one for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) and it’s no accident that an independence scheme languishing since the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1707 can to full boil under her reign of error.

It is customary to speak well of famous/infamous people when they finally pass from this mortal coil. I’m sorry Mrs. Thatcher had dementia, a truly horrifying disease I’d not wish on my worst enemy. But given that she is high on my list of enemies, I have no further charity for Thatcher. My views of her are summed by the words from the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz: “Ding dong, the witch is dead!” Thatcher, like Ronald Reagan, was a fraud masquerading as a champion of the masses. And, like Reagan, she gets credit for all sorts of things she had little to do with and avoids the blame for lots of outrages for which she was.

Thatcher came to power at a time in which British unemployment and inflation were rising. Like Reagan, she would later claim that her policies reduced economic despair; in both cases, they took credit for reducing levels that their policies made worse. Thatcher’s monetarist polices drove inflation to 18% by 1980; when it came down to 8.6% in 1983, Thatcher crowed like a proud rooster, though one wonders why given that 8.6% is still a ruinous rate. Inflation did not really go down until 1990, her final year in office, and then it was due to the 90% tax she had slapped on North Sea oil—drilled off the coast of (you guessed it) Scotland. (In similar fashion, nearly all of the economic gain under Reagan in the 1980s was due to new technology: the computer revolution that didn’t exist when he ran for president, soared by the mid-1980s.)

Thatcher was a devotee of Milton Friedman’s monetarism, a tight fiscal policy that carefully regulates the amount of money in circulation and makes loans hard to secure. It is a banker’s and investor’s delight, but a nightmare if you want to buy a home or other high-ticket item. It is also achieved by reigning in government spending, a task Thatcher achieved by privatizing everything that wasn’t nailed down: British steel, most utilities, and parts of British Rail—a system once the envy of the world and now a creaky collection of independent lines whose poor service is rivaled only by its deplorable repair record. The point was to move workers off the government payroll and throw them to the mercies of the private—read lower-paid—sector. Nowhere was this done with such abject cruelty as in mining. Numerous pits were closed and around 15% of all miners lost their jobs. Want to hazard a guess as to where the worst hit regions were? Try Yorkshire, Wales, and (of course!) Scotland. Thatcher also achieved her goals by taking on labor unions because—well, there are so many high-paying jobs in the burgeoning service sector. (Not!)Unemployment stood at 6.2% when she took office; it quickly jumped to 8.2% and workers rioted across Great Britain.  Unemployment wouldn’t go back down to 6.2% until 1985. When Thatcher finally left office in 1990 and passed the baton to her toady, John Major, the rate was again 8.2%. Does one even need to discuss Bobby Sands and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, or Mrs. Thatcher’s support for the Kymer Rouge government of Cambodia? Does one even see these things amidst all the post-Falklands garlands with which she adorned herself?

Thatcher and Major ingratiated themselves with banks, financiers, aristocrats, and the “new money” Chablis-and-brie set. To put it in terms popular these days, she (and Major never did establish his own identity) was the prime minister of the 1%. A telling story: In 1997, Scots first voted on devolution.  The Tories packed up Maggie Thatcher for a trip north, where she implored the populace, “No, no—Scotland.” In a session in the Scots Parliament, Mrs. Thatcher was confronted by an angry nationalist who enquired in his thickest rogue, “Isn’t it trrrrue, Mrs. Thatcherrrr, that no one norrrth of the Tweed (the river separating the Scottish Borders from England) voted for yewwww?” After some waffling she admitted that Tories fared poorly in Scotland. To which she was told, “Rrrrright then. Since yewwww don’t rrrepresent inyone herrrrre, perhaps yewwww ought to buggerrrrr off back to London!”  As folks in that part of the world say, “Too right!”

I don’t know if it’s a good idea for Scotland to be independent or not, but I do know this much: if a politician is the friend of bankers, union-busters, and get-rich-quick speculators, they are no friend to the 99%. I know that we often confuse leaders who are strong-headed with those that are strong and that manicured press clippings and carefully crafted eulogies do not compensate for decades of disregard, disrespect, and callousness directed at society’s working stiffs. I know that you can’t rob Scots to reward Barclay bankers and expect Scots to sing your praises. And I know that, for all its travails, the world is a slightly better place because Margaret Thatcher isn’t part of it.


Balkan Reggae Works Pretty Well

Balkan Reggae
Asphalt Tango Records 3713
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Occasionally things come across my desk that are just so conceptually odd that I know instantly they will be either a train wreck or a pleasure cruise. Such was my reaction to Balkan Reggae, which I’m happy to report is the latter type of journey. Here’s the set up: Mahala Rai Banda is a well-known Romanian band that is no stranger to mash-up sounds. Generally labeled a “gypsy” band, it is at least musically true to the travelers’ spirit in that it blends folk tunes, brassy jazz, pop, and rock. So why not take it another level and add ska, funk, conjunto, and reggae to the mix? That’s precisely what it has done, but in an unexpected manner. Mahala does it dub style–often stripping out the vocals, but sometimes retaining raps or the comments of dub masters. Dubbing allows the band to play “with” artists such as Carib bluesman Errol Linton, accordion wizard Koby Israelite, or Bosnia’s pop/funk band La Cherga.

The album purports to be in honor of the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence, but it’s far more diverse than that. Most of the mix masters–Mad Professor, Nick Manaseeh, JStar, G-Vibes–have been influenced by Caribbean music, but Mahala Rai Banda still stand in the musical center of most of the selections. Luckily, the band has the wisdom to stick to its strength–energetic tunes heavy on brass and fiery fiddle. And, thank heaven, Mahala does not attempt faux accents or do bad Bob Marley mashes. Most of the tunes end up being an unorthodox pastiche of reggae back beats set to 120 beats-per-minute dance tempos against a Balkan backdrop. Got that? It probably works best in an actual dance hall, but let’s give high marks for a bold effort.--Rob Weir

For a sample try this slower-paced track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Jwgm6XmoA4