The Abstinence Teacher
by Tom Perrotta
St. Martin's, 368 pp., $24.95
Ever since Tom Perrotta struck comedy gold with Election in 1998, he's been a reliable guide to the zeitgeist, and more specifically to the shifting moods, receding hairlines, and expanding paunches of Blue America.
So it makes sense that his latest novel deals more or less directly with the "culture war"--the central preoccupation of Blue America's novel-readers--as it plays out in one suburban town. Ruth Ramsey, one of the two protagonists in The Abstinence Teacher, is a liberated sex-ed teacher who finds herself besieged by (in her decidedly uncharitable view) a band of crazed American Taliban who dare to preach abstinence. And volunteer youth soccer coach Tim Mason is a down-on-his-luck, reluctant American Talib. An ex-rocker and ex-junkie, he dutifully struggles through a loveless marriage and miserable job in the name of leading a strenuously Christian life.
The stage is set for Culture War Comedy!
Back in September, Perrotta kindly shared his "playlist"--the songs he was listening to most--with Dwight Garner of the New York Times. Because Perrotta was gearing up to promote The Abstinence Teacher, you can be sure he was telegraphing us a message about what to expect. Two songs tied for first place.
There was "First Night" by The Hold Steady, an instant classic from the latter half of 2006. It's a boozy ballad that, in Perrotta's very apt characterization, "is an ode to youthful nostalgia, that realization you can have even in your 20s that the best, most intense moments have already occurred." And then there was Bruce Springsteen's "Fourth of July, Asbury Park," the kind of song that makes grown men weep. Both songs are populist and accessible, yet smart. The selection is thus almost perfectly upper-middlebrow. But there's more to it than that.
Like Springsteen, Perrotta has been grasping in the general direction of the Great New Jersey Novel since the publication of his story collection Bad Haircut, a sad and funny look at the 1970s through the eyes of Buddy, a bright working-class kid. Joe College, Perrotta's best novel by far, follows a strikingly similar kid, named Danny, as he half-heartedly compromises his way to adulthood.
Some see Joe College as an extended riff on the themes raised by Jersey giant Philip Roth in Goodbye, Columbus: status anxiety, young love more status anxiety. It's no surprise that smart young novelists write novels about smart young men, but while Bad Haircut and Joe College rarely reach Rothian heights, they are consistently affecting. The question is, what happens after Buddy and Danny leave their hometown and go off to Yale? Do they outgrow the parochialism of their decent-yet-narrow upbringings and ascend new heights? That's the hope. But some, inevitably, discover new and sometimes more noxious ways of being parochial.
Which leads us back to The Abstinence Teacher. Like Little Children, a breezy read turned into a movie loved by the smart set, The Abstinence Teacher is notably unspecific: We're somewhere in affluent smugburbia. But whereas Little Children was about the thrill of sexual infidelity--or rather, the thrill of sexual infidelity for the boring, pathetic, and not-so-bright--and paranoia over the abuse of children, The Abstinence Teacher is explicitly about religion and politics. The aforementioned Ruth, a divorced mother of two, goes ballistic when soccer coach Tim leads her daughter and other teammates in a celebratory postgame prayer.
She's already at wit's end after the school district forces her to teach a pro-abstinence curriculum, and it doesn't help that she's plagued by loneliness and sexual frustration. (Before you send in an angry letter, please note that I didn't write the book.) So she decides to take up a new crusade: to fight for the separation of church and youth soccer. The only trouble is that longhaired Tim is just handsome and self-effacing enough to complicate matters.
The Abstinence Teacher's Ruth is a lot like Sarah, the feminist housewife at the heart of Little Children. Both are grown women who've never gotten over high school. For Sarah, it's the pain of being overlooked by the likes of "the Prom King" that stings most. For Ruth, it is the vague memory of her pudgy teen paramour Paul.
Like all of us, Ruth just wants to be loved, and as she enters the fullness of middle age, she fears that she never will. Her daughters are moody and distant, and it doesn't help when they both get religion. Ruth's best friends, a gay couple with a relationship on the rocks, can only give her so much of the attention she desperately needs.
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.