Faith- based ini­tia­tive of­fers an amus­ing tar­get

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jen­nifer Levasseur

SOME peo­ple like it. Hardly a phrase to halt a na­tion, but in Tom Per­rotta’s de­li­cious new novel The Ab­sti­nence Teacher, those four in­nocu­ous words shake a small Amer­i­can town’s evan­gel­i­cal foun­da­tion. And while the orig­i­nal ref­er­ence can be traced back to a throw­away line from the high school sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion teacher, it be­comes a kind of sound­track that plays in the back­ground of ev­ery scene in this light- hearted yet bit­ing novel that satirises the Chris­tian Right while giv­ing it a fair shake.

Ruth Ram­sey, newly di­vorced mother and sexed vet­eran, never ex­pected a surly stu­dent to re­port her for re­fus­ing to con­cede that oral sex is a lot like lick­ing a toi­let seat. She also never thought of her­self as a li­a­bil­ity to her school, com­mu­nity and fam­ily. She cer­tainly hadn’t ex­pected to find her­self bat­tling to halt prayer dur­ing her daugh­ter’s soc­cer games, or to dis­cover that her other daugh­ter was hid­ing the Bi­ble the way that she once stashed away The Happy Hooker.

But the last thing she would have be­lieved was the giddy feel­ing she got in the pres­ence of coach Tim Ma­son, the drug­gie mu­si­cian turned realtor and born- again Chris­tian.

As in his pre­vi­ous books,

Per­rotta

slams head­first into touchy ter­ri­tory. No so­cial mores or cul­tural phe­nom­ena are above or be­yond his range. In Elec­tion he found hu­mour in high school pol­i­tics and in­ap­pro­pri­ate teacher- stu­dent re­la­tions, and in Lit­tle Chil­dren he ex­plored the world of adul­tery with a light hand that still man­aged to press a nerve. While Per­rotta’s read­ers may think they know ex­actly what to ex­pect when some­one of his sen­si­bil­i­ties tack­les evan­gel­i­cal re­li­gion and the sup­posed evils it at­tempts to erad­i­cate, he man­ages to keep the novel fresh even with­out man­u­fac­tur­ing big sur­prises. Though it’s clear where his sym­pa­thies lie, he never al­lows his nar­ra­tive to fal­ter un­der the strain of a mes­sage.

At its core, the novel is sim­ple: a mod­er­ately af­flu­ent small town finds it­self sprout­ing non­de­nom­i­na­tional evan­gel­i­cal churches, com­plete with fa­nat­i­cal pas­tors, dough­nut break­fasts and end­less calls to prayer. The Taber­na­cle in­fil­trates Ruth’s school and life, forc­ing her into a cur­ricu­lum she doesn’t be­lieve in and one that leaves her feel­ing dirty.

‘‘ She’d done what she could to let the kids know she wasn’t buy­ing what she was sell­ing — gri­mac­ing, talk­ing in a ro­botic voice, stress­ing as of­ten as she could that the cur­ricu­lum didn’t nec­es­sar­ily re­flect her per­sonal opin­ion — but it didn’t mat­ter much,’’ Per­rotta writes.

As she fights to pro­vide ac­cu­rate sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion, Ruth must also bat­tle the lone­li­ness of sin­gle life and pariah sta­tus, all the while puz­zling over what’s so tempt­ing about a man who wants her chil­dren to pray. How will she stop him but still keep him around?

Coach Tim has his own prob­lems: a con­stant pang for his ex- wife and the daugh­ter he gets to see only once a week, re­gret over years lost to drugs, de­sire for those drugs and the fun that ac­com­pa­nied them, and a guilty con­science that weighs on him in an­tic­i­pa­tion of any wrong move or thought. Not to men­tion the ever- present Pas­tor Den­nis and the im­pos­si­ble ex­pec­ta­tions he sets up for his favourite new con­vert.

The Ab­sti­nence Teacher reads like a guilty plea­sure. Per­rotta’s deft writ­ing makes it an ef­fort­less jaunt, one fu­elled by witty set- ups and spot- on ob­ser­va­tions of the ev­ery­day, rather than one- off jokes. His most un­lik­able char­ac­ters forge a place to be un­der­stood, if not loved.

It’s the kind of book you miss as soon as you put it down.

Per­rotta is a satirist and a bit of a co­me­dian, but in his search for hu­mour he never loses sight of his char­ac­ters’ hu­man­ity. JoAnn Mar­low, vir­gin­ity con­sul­tant and self- pro­fessed proud 28- year- old vir­gin, could have been an easy tar­get, and Per­rotta does have fun with her lac­quered face and beauty- pageant hair. When she leads a week­end train­ing course, she asks at­ten­dees to write about a re­gret­ted sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ence. One wo­man ad­mits she’s ashamed to share and JoAnn seems to rub her hands in glee. ‘‘ Ex­cel­lent,’’ she says. ‘‘ Why don’t you tell us about it,’’ ex­pos­ing her­self for the de­prived voyeur she re­ally is. No one, even Ruth, es­capes Per­rotta’s ex­pos­ing eye.

The Ab­sti­nence Teacher is a rare book, the kind that en­ter­tains and en­light­ens while of­fer­ing a gen­tle chal­lenge. It is es­sen­tial read­ing for any­one won­der­ing what drives West­ern re­li­gious fa­nati­cism and Amer­ica’s new pu­ri­tanism and, at the same time, for any­one who en­joys a good laugh or an en­gag­ing com­edy of man­ners.

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