The Abstinence Teacher: A Novel by Tom Perrotta
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Washington Post Book World
Tom Perrotta's new novel sounds like something to get all hot and bothered about. The chemistry is perfect for this master of suburban satire: fundamentalist Christians gettin' down with liberal sex ed. A hookup like this should set off fireworks, but for some reason The Abstinence Teacher suffers from a kind of literary erectile dysfunction (LED). It's nothing to worry about, I suppose; these things happen to novels now and then, but for those of us still fantasizing about the hilarity of Election or the scathing wit of Little Children, it's pretty frustrating.
The title character is Ruth Ramsey, an experienced sex ed teacher in Stonewood Heights, one of those well-to-do Northeastern suburbs that Perrotta knows so well. A divorced mother of two girls, Ruth approaches her "Health & Family Life" course with "unflappable, matter-of-fact candor." Convinced that "Pleasure is Good, Shame is Bad, and Knowledge is Power, she saw it as her mission to demystify sex." But the previous spring, Ruth sparked a nasty community backlash when she took advantage of "a teachable moment" and told her students, "From what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it."
In the media storm that comment aroused, Ruth found herself subjected to a lawsuit, denounced by preachers across the country and dubbed the "Oral Sex Lady." Not only was she forced to issue a public apology, but the school board adopted a new abstinence curriculum designed by Christian fundamentalists and supervised by a super-sexy but ferociously judgmental "Virginity Consultant."
The sharpest moment in the novel comes early -- not a good sign. In an all-school assembly, this Virginity Consultant delivers a lecture that mixes "shameless fear-mongering" with erotically charged descriptions of her upcoming honeymoon (complete with photos of her hunky but patient boyfriend). So powerful is this presentation that even Ruth falls under its spell for a moment, "wondering how she'd ever been so weak as to let herself be duped into thinking it might be pleasant or even necessary to allow herself to be touched or loved by another human being." Perrotta knows just how to zero in on the priggish absolutism of the abstinence movement. We're on Ruth's side faster than she can unroll a latex condom.
Forced to teach this puritanical new curriculum in her classroom and enduring a long spot of involuntary abstinence at home, Ruth suffers through a lonely, aggravating fall term. It's a perfect setup for the conflict in the next scene when Ruth catches her daughter's soccer coach, Tim Mason, praying with the girls after a game. For a beleaguered liberal who's paranoid that fundamentalists are "running the country," this is the last straw. Charging toward the prayer circle, "Ruth was startled by the surge of anger that coursed through her body," Perrotta writes. "It was as if everything she'd swallowed over the past six months -- the abuse, the insults, the humiliation -- had gathered into a fiery ball that was rising up from her belly, into her throat."
But almost immediately afterward, The Abstinence Teacher becomes flaccid. The novel's focus shifts over to Tim, who's coaching the girls soccer team as a way of staying in touch with his daughter. He's a reformed alcoholic and drug addict who's putting his life back in order with the help of the Tabernacle Church. Most of the story concerns his efforts to be a good Christian, to love his pliant new wife and to resist the substances that almost killed him. Perrotta portrays all this with deep sympathy and insight, though not very much verve, a problem that's compounded by the fact that much of the novel takes place in the past, constantly filling in how we got to where we are now. But where we are now -- the conflict between Tim and Ruth over the soccer game prayer -- is a rather tiny controversy on which to hang a story, particularly since Tim quickly apologizes and promises never to do it again.
Fundamentalist Christians are usually sitting ducks in satire, but Perrotta goes out of his way to portray the Tabernacle Church with a gentle hand. Even Pastor Dennis comes off fairly well. Although he's strict and severe, politically and socially conservative, he's sincerely concerned about his flock, and the novel stays admirably far from any of the usual, worn-out slurs: Rev. Dennis isn't siphoning funds from the church coffers or seducing choir boys. Yes, there's some comedy here -- if you haven't been to a modern evangelical church, it can all seem a bit glad-handed and slogany: "Who hates sin? WE DO!" -- but much of this isn't any more barbed than Garrison Keillor on the Lutherans in Lake Wobegon.
The Abstinence Teacher is certainly Perrotta's most sensitive novel. His portrayal of Tim -- a good man struggling to find a moral code amid a thicket of temptations and extremists -- is tender, witty and wise, but the novel lacks the necessary element of passion. It practices a strange kind of abstinence: a failure to consummate its satiric drive. Regardless of what we tell the kids, that's not a safe way for a good book to behave.
Ron Charles is the fiction editor of Book World.