Faith- based initiative offers an amusing target
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,
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.