Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher

On the plane back from Europe, I read Tom Perrotta’s new novel, The Abstinence Teacher, which I believe comes out next week in the U.S.. It’s very similar to Little Children in its structure: alternating chapters take us into the minds of a man and a woman, with diametrically opposed lives, and yet of course strikingly similar flaws. The title character in The Abstinence Teacher is Ruth Ramsey, a recently divorced high-school sex-education teacher who runs into trouble with members of an evangelical church. They complain to the school board, the school board sides with the concerned parents, and a new, abstinence-only curriculum is introduced. The other protagonist is Tim Mason, the soccer coach. He’s a drug addict and an alcoholic who only managed to get clean and sober when he found Jesus, and he is a member of the church that forced the abstinence curriculum on Ruth. Tim is riddled with doubts, though, jealous of his ex-wife’s new husband, and generally having a hard time finding anything in common with his new, church-approved wife.

Given the frightening influence of the Christian right on current U.S. policies in education, public health, and foreign affairs, it’s really refreshing to see a novelist tackle the theme of fundamentalism. (And if you doubt for one minute the wide influence of fundamentalists, just look at what the nutty Ann Coulter recently said about Jews, and at the campaign the equally nutty David Horowitz is mounting on university campuses.) Perrotta does a good job of placing his characters in difficult situations, and his satirical eye is devastatingly sharp. I found the novel engrossing, and ended up staying up to finish it even though I was exhausted when I got off the plane. I did have a couple of issues with the book, though. For instance, the continual mention of brand names grew tiring after a while; nearly each product name was shorthand for a character trait, and consumer choices don’t go very far in drawing out character.