Thursday, February 12, 2009

“The Abstinence Teacher”, by Tom Perrotta (Harper)


“Some people enjoy it”; four words that changed Ruth’s life and job. Ruth is a Sex Education teacher at Stonewood Heights high, beloved of her students for telling them the way things are, rather than spouting politically correct curriculum talking points and ideologically-charged falsehoods.

Then the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth church and its Pastor Dennis get involved, conducting their “crusade to cleanse Stonewood Heights of all manner of godlessness and moral decay, as if this sleepy bedroom community was an abomination unto the Lord,” predicated on Pastor Dennis’s belief that current society is the way it is because “they’ve given the inmates control of the asylum” (something that could all too easily be turned back on his people). Ruth’s classes are taken over by the Abstinence Only program – government funded, “officially sanctioned ignorance”, and she is forced to endure them as unbearable ordeals.

The Abstinence Teacher is effectively two novels. One is about the encroaching influence that Evangelical Christians have in American society and politics. In this, Perrotta is superb, writing with a wit and eye for pointing out the absurd, narrow-minded and oft-nasty beliefs and methods of this growing sect. Ruth’s classes become vehicles for disseminating unsubstantiated myth and fallacy, all shepherded by people like JoAnn, who can only charitably be described as Abstinence Barbie.

The other side of the novel is Ruth’s life – she’s divorced, lonely, now dissatisfied with her work, and looking for love. She finds it in the most unlikely of places – Tim Mason, a member of the Tabernacle church, whose first encounter with Ruth is far from pleasant. Ruth is a good heroine for the novel, and the reader will find themselves caring about her. Perrotta’s style also allows for the novel to progress at a fair clip (even though not a whole lot happens in the first 80 pages or so, after the initial oral-sex confession).

This was a good book. However, I can’t help thinking I was more interested in it because of the politics discussed and my interest in the US culture wars and politics as a whole, and that is what kept me reading (with only a short break to read the previously reviewed Vince Flynn book). The political side of the novel was interesting, while the other side wasn’t particularly inspiring or original. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of amusing one-liners, dialogues, and so forth (and Ruth is endearingly practical), but otherwise the novel didn’t stand out as something exceptional. In terms of discussions about sex and its place in young people’s lives in America, I would probably recommend Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons before this.

It was a good read, as I’ve said, but I just wasn’t gripped by it. As I’ve been devouring thrillers of late, it might be that I’ve just got into the mood for something quicker and more exciting. Perrotta is undoubtedly a gifted writer, but The Abstinence Teacher failed to move me as much as I’d hoped. I’ll return to it at a later date, but in this instance, I was underwhelmed.

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