The Abstinence Teacher

Tom Perrotta is a very fortunate writer.  Not only is he one of those authors whose novels have a large readership, but two of his books have been adapted to the screen with wonderful results.  Anyone who has seen “Election” or “Little Children” knows that his stories are slices of suburban life where the so-called “bliss” of a community is pierced by deviant characters and events creating ripples in the placid surface of a particular town.  The conflicts are layered in sometimes sophisticated detail that, in terms of the film adaptations, makes for wonderfully compelling stories.   

His latest novel, The Abstinence Teacher, takes the reader into the world where public schools, sex-ed, girls soccer, and evangelical Christianity intersect. The results are predictably explosive, but what struck me as, well, novel about this novel was the main character of Tim – whose conversion to evangelical Christianity and his struggles to maintain a straight and narrow life are detailed in a way that has great respect for the character.  

I’ve read a few reviews of this book and some critics find Tim’s back story a bit unbelievable. After all, Tim is a former rock musician who never had great success in the biz, but did succeed in developing a drug addiction, ruining his first marriage, and alienating his daughter.   Through a 12 step program, he was able control his addictions, eventually found his way to an evangelical Christian church where he became “born again,” remarried, and tried to be a better father to his daughter by becoming the coach of her soccer team.  Tim’s story may sound unconvincing to critics, but in one of those uncanny coincidences of life, I work with a guy whose bio is pretty similar to Tim’s.   

The other main character in this story is Ruth, whose life is also in the dumpsters – emotionally speaking. She’s a high school teacher whose class on sexual education is popular, but becomes controversial after she casually responds to a student’s claim that oral sex is analogous to putting your mouth on a toilet.  Ruth talks about hygiene, protection, and all the standard sex ed responses, but the student, who belongs to the same evangelical church as Tim, is insistent in her claim that oral sex is dirty, sick, and shouldn’t be engaged in at all.  Ruth, who’s trying to be tolerant and keep her class under control, quips that “Some people enjoy it.”  Well, this comment sets off a fire storm of complaints to the school district and results in Ruth having to endure a “re-education” program by a religious group promoting abstinence and issuing a public apology about her comment in class.  Needless to say, the experience made her very bitter toward Christian fundamentalists.   

When Tim (who also coaches Ruth’s daughter in soccer) leads the girls in a post-game prayer, Ruth goes on a campaign to get Tim ousted as coach by arguing a church/state violation (the soccer league is run by the city).  Instead of running down the predictable route of “eye for an eye” justice, Perrotta brings the two unlikely characters together in a predictable “opposites attract” storyline.  It was unsatisfying to see Ruth and Tim get together, but I’m not sure where Perrotta could have taken this story.   

However, the glimpse into the to complicated lives of those who, in Nietzsche’s view, live a “life-denying” way of life was fascinating because while Perrotta does lapse into stereotypes, his main character is conflicted in such a deep way that I wanted to know more about the world he found himself in. He was in a loveless semi-arranged marriage to Carrie — who was compliant, but emotionally checked out.  Carrie’s story could have been expanded because she was far more interesting than Ruth.   Also, the resolution to the story – that of finding joy in this life and not deferring it for an afterlife — was flat and unsatisfying.  

Would I recommend this book?  Absolutely!  I’m not a big reader of fiction, but the story was gripping enough to keep me interested, and like I said before, the glimpse into the world of evangelical Christianity at a time when religious fundamentalism is bent on remaking the world in its own image, is worth the price of admission.

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