The Magazine

True Love Waits

Abstinence leads to all kinds of adventures.

Jan 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 18 • By REIHAN SALAM
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Now, of course, there's something to this. Almost all parents at some point feel keenly underappreciated, but Ruth takes this understandable sensitivity a step further. Somehow she is never to blame for her own misery. It's not too surprising that she decides to lash out, and the fact that she lashes out politically, against her Christianist enemies, reflects the tenor of our times as much as her own self-importance.

It's easy to dismiss Ruth as an unflattering caricature, but there are plenty of Ruths in the world: sad, misguided people who let youthful nostalgia cripple them for life.

Tim, another nostalgia victim, is the more sympathetic of the two leads. After hitting rock bottom and losing his wife and daughter to a more stable, prosperous man, Tim is transformed by the healing power of Christianity as preached by former Best Buy salesman and neighborhood zealot, Pastor Dennis. The Tabernacle--Pastor Dennis's church--is not portrayed unflatteringly, exactly. It's easy to see why Tim finds comfort there, in a nurturing, multiclass, multiethnic milieu so atypical of affluent smugburbia.

At the same time, Pastor Dennis is very clearly an authoritarian running what amounts to a cult of personality. Tim is one of its victims. Out of sincere gratitude, Tim hews closely to Pastor Dennis's path, even when the pastor tries to make Tim the instrument of his small-town holy war. But he continues to lust after booze and, rather more urgently, after his ex-wife. Tim is definitely flawed, yet he comes across as a little Jesus-like in his good-natured humility and kindness. Tim represents a bohemian, nonjudgmental Christianity that is all about the love, man. Pastor Dennis does not.

It's pretty clear which side Perrotta falls on, and the plot draws Tim closer and closer to Ruth, his unlikely ally. The conclusion is not exactly a shocker. It is romantic-comedy neat, in fact; and in truth, it really makes you pine for Joe College.
So while The Abstinence Teacher is far from the best example of culture-war lit--for that I enthusiastically recommend Walter Kirn's brilliant She Needed Me--it is a welcome addition to a fast-expanding genre, not least because it provides a solid primer on the politics of resentment.

Reihan Salam is an associate editor at the
Atlantic Monthly.