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The Abstinence Teacher

by Tom Perrotta (St Martin's, 2007)

With The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrotta advances to an unstable eminence, as a writer of popular, intelligent, but not at all "literary" fiction that nevertheless resonates so deeply and so clearly that there is no good reason for not approaching it as literature. Now he has given us a novel that demands that we reconsider just what we mean when we talk about "serious fiction." The awful truth is that The Abstinence Teacher is both obviously serious and easily accessible. Must serious fiction be difficult? Must it make demands of the reader as a reader?

This is not the place to sound those questions. Rather, we need to assess of the novel's strength, which is its critique of life in the American suburbs, written in a language that is perfectly suited to that milieu its own language, in short, at least as intelligent people speak it (and not only among themselves). Most American fiction with suburban settings is written in the language of escape: the narrator (the author or his stand-in) speaks as someone who has fled the deliberately limited horizons of suburbia and now enjoys the broader scope of a candidly cosmopolitan environment. I need go no further than the second page of Jonathan Franzen's great novel of suburban immolation, The Corrections, to locate the tone that serious American fiction takes when considering the smallness of suburban life.

The anxiety of coupons, in a drawer containing candles in designer autumn colors. The coupons were bundled in a rubber band, and Enid was realizing that their expiration dates (often jauntily circled in red by the manufacturer) lay months and even years in the past: that these hundred-odd coupons, whose total face value exceeded sixty dollars (potentially one hundred twenty dollars at the Chiltsville supermarket that doubled coupons), had all gone bad. Tilex, sixty cents off. Excedrin PM, a dollar off. The dates were not even close. The dates were historical. The alarm bell had been ringing for years.

But of course it is in the nature of suburban ears to hear only those alarms that are sounded by school superintendents, fire chiefs, and lifeguards. Of Mr Franzen's acute capture of the American homemaker's false economy truly frugal people purchase neither Tilex nor headache powders we can say that Enid Lambert, its human subject, would find it disagreeable at best. The novelist's discussion of coupons, brief as it is, would strike her as "embarrassing" and "unnecessary," perhaps even as "trivial." Alongside the false economy, there is a false consciousness. Enid might horde coupons, and might sincerely regret their lapsing. But she would not share her interest or her regret with anyone. Contrary to what the fledgling literary critic might imagine, what's happening in this passage is that the author insists, over and against his character's likely rebuttal, that Enid Lambert's interest in coupons is important, because it tells us something about her.

So that even if Mr Franzen is correct about the coupons and I am sure that he is the Enid Lamberts of this world are not going to be reading The Corrections. The novel is written by a man who makes it clear on every page that he has left Enid Lambert's world behind for all time. The Corrections might be seen as making the case for that departure, that rejection. The Corrections is a repudiation of, among other things, "the anxiety of coupons." Enid Lambert would never say such a thing.

Tom Perrotta's achievement is to present a critical picture of suburbia that Enid Lambert a younger Enid Lambert, in any case might actually read. The Abstinence Teacher is nowhere near so richly illuminated as The Corrections, but it does light up its characters in their own unaffected words. Of course, anyone can put down the unaffected words of vernacular speech. When Mr Perrotta does so, however, the result is not only not banal but enlightening, and precisely enlightening at that.

Tim had never seen the Grateful Dead perform at the Civic Center Auditorium they tended to prefer the larger outdoor venues in the area but he had seen a number of concerts here in his younger days, including shows by .38 Special, The English Beat, and a couple of different incarnations of the Allman Brothers. In some ways at least if you factored out the thick cloud of pot smoke that used to hover over the festivities it felt utterly familiar to be sitting up here in the cheap seats with his buddies, looking down on the tiny musicians rocking out on stage, completely continuous with the rest of his life. He wondered how many other Faith Keepers could say the same thing, how many of them had batted beach balls into the air while waiting for Supertramp to take the stage, or passed drunk girls overhead while Little Feat played a third encore.

Tim Mason, a musician himself, has hauled himself out of a drug-addled recklessness that cost him the wife of his dreams and the company of his daughter, Abby. Where once he would have slouched, drunk and stoned, he now sits with his new co-religionists and their pastor, a fundamentalist prophet who ardently endorses Biblical family values. Pastor Dennis might, in another writer's hands, be a figure of satire, but although Mr Perrotta has a little bit of fun describing his conversion (the pastor's, not Tim's) he never stops seeing where the man is coming from. This makes Pastor Dennis both more "human" and more insidious.

Dennis was not a big man, and he had never done much exercise, but the Spirit made him strong. He tossed all-in-one printers through the air like they were empty boxes, toppled a shelf of home-theater components, scattered CDs like playing cards. A couple of his fellow employees tried to stop him, but they were too weak. A gaggle of customers some moved by his passion, others excited by the possibility of violence began to follow him as he made his way, inevitably, it seemed, to the back of the store, where he planted himself in front of a three-thousand-dollar, sixty-one-inch, wide-screen flat-panel plasma TV that was playing Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

"Whore!" he shouted. "Abomination!"

There was some uncertainty about where the boombox came from, whether he'd picked it up on the way or someone had handed it to him just then, but there was no dispute about the fact that he raised the sleek black tube overhead it was a JVC with built-in subwoofers and hurled it at the screen, causing Angelina Jolie to disintegrate in a rain of shattered glass. Screams of protest and cheers of approval mingled as Dennis fell to his knees and called out to God.

Some witnesses believed that he was about to demolish a second TV, but he never got the chance, two security guards jumped him from behind and began attacking him with fists and billy clubs, delivering a savage and prolonged beating that was captured by a customer on a display model camcorder. Tim remembered seeing the grainy video on the TV news he was going through his divorce at the time and was a long way from God and thinking, "Big deal, the jerk had it coming to him," which he later realized, with a feeling of deep shame, was exactly what lots of "good" people must have thought two thousand years ago, watching a half-dead man getting whipped by soldiers as he dragged a wooden cross up a hill in the desert.

This is criticism from within, experience recounted in natural testimony that overlays abject sincerity with a fine sparkle of critical reservations. Mr Perrotta does not have to tell us that the rally of the Faith Keepers is as vulgar as a rock concert, or that the entertainment store where Pastor Dennis gets religion is a Temple of Baal in modern dress. Such allusions and references would not occur to his characters and would probably irritate his ideal reader who is without a doubt simply one of his more likeable characters. More importantly, though, talk of Baal and vulgarity would put us at a distance from Tim and Dennis and the other fine (and not so fine) people in The Abstinence Teacher. We would be in a position to condescend, whether we wanted to be there or not. The author is no leveler; he never suggests that the suburban world in which his characters live exhausts the possibilities for meaningful existence and that all of us would be happy to inhabit it if we could. But he refuses to stand above or beyond it. This is Tom Perrotta's quiet triumph. He creates compelling drama out of his characters' doubts, second thoughts, and minor moral discomforts without uttering the faintest authorial peep. If there is no detachment in this novel, neither is there surrender. His characters are his critics.

This isn't to say that Mr Perrotta never shows his hand. But he does so by sharing his characters' sympathies. Like his hero, he does not think much of Donald Trump, for example. Meanwhile, his heroine, Ruth Ramsey, has been teaching sex education at the local public school for years, but now she faces the challenge of evangelical Christians to whom her curriculum is an affront. What makes them wicked in the author's eyes is not their religious message per se, but the tremendous dishonesty in which even they recognize that it must be cloaked if it is to enlist the assent of high school students.

It was standard-issue Abstinence Ed, in other words shameless fear-mongering, backed up by half-truths and bogus examples and inflammatory rhetoric nothing Ruth hadn't been exposed to before, but this time, for some reason, it felt different. The way JoAnn presented the stuff, it came across as lived experience, and for a little while there until she snapped out of her trance and saw how easily she'd been manipulated even Ruth had fallen under her spell, wondering how she'd ever been so weak as to let herself be duped into thinking it might be pleasant or even necessary to allow herself to be touched or loved by another human being. Why would you, if all it was going to do was make you vulnerable to all those afflictions, all that regret?

Ruth's ultimately vain attempt to mollify the new puritans pits her against one of Mr Perrotta's few totally unsympathetic characters a woman who, accordingly, wears something of the sheen of a symbol. JoAnn Marlow, self-professed virgin, is in every outward way a painted hussy.

JoAnn Marlow was her usual perky, overdressed self, as if she couldn't imagine a better way to kick off the weekend than to throw on a tailored silk blouse, a tasteful string of pearls, and three coats of makeup before heading over to the office to knock some sense into a bunch of reprobate Sex Education teachers.


JoAnn rolled her chair away from the table and stood up. She wasn't particularly tall, but there was something elegant and powerful in the way she carried herself, a quality of absolute confidence that Ruth couldn't help envying, even though it was completely foreign to her and deeply off-putting.

JoAnn exemplifies the profound confusion of aggressive evangelism. Shiny where it ought to be modest, strident where it ought to be comforting, and self-righteous where it ought to be humble, this ancient American deviance essentially a primitive, pre-Christian religion of ritual purification updates itself with relentless vigor, isolating one comfortable pleasure for attack while ignoring or tolerating all the others. The body politic succumbs to periodic fevers but is never deeply compromised by the infection. The Abstinence Teacher abounds in well-drawn characters who do not ride the Christian juggernaut. (To name just a few, there are Tim's wife and her new husband; a poker-playing developer; and a gay couple on the verge of marriage.) Mr Perrotta's suburbia is no new Salem.

Indeed, it is Tim Mason who embodies this world's degree zero. He is what used to be called "the average sensual man." As such, he requires a bit of outside direction to steer him away from the peril of drowning in pleasure. Tim's inability to find, or to take, direction has already led to one complete collapse. Pastor Dennis's Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, however, provides too much direction. As the novelty of self-mortification wears off, asking "What would Jesus do?" ceases to be an altogether reliable tactic for defeating Satan.

Over the past couple of years, Tim had applied this test on a number of occasions, and for a while, at least, it had worked pretty much the way the Pastor had predicted. Tim's Companion had been highly observant and easily alarmed. Lately, though, He seemed to be slacking off a bit, or at least becoming more tolerant of human weakness. Tim knew this wasn't quite right in the Gospels, the Son of God was often angry and harshly judgmental, despite His injunction against mortals passing judgment on one another but there were times when the Jesus by his side seemed no more helpful than one of his old stoner buddies from high school, the kind of guy who'd watch you screwing up, then just chuckle and say, Wow, dude, I can't believe you did that.

It is evident almost from the start that Tim is going to end up in the worldly arms of Ruth Ramsey, but, for that very reason, he does so only at the end. Instead of being taken by the easily foreseeable romance, The Abstinence Teacher dwells on the vastly less comfortable relationship between Tim and his second wife, a woman pressed upon him by Pastor Dennis. Although we never see things from Carrie's point of view, we watch in something like horror as she is transformed from a Christian bimbo with hardly a thought in her head to a woman so desperate for love that there is no costume she won't willingly don, no contortion she won't sincerely undertake in order to give her husband "hot Christian sex." As an average sensual man, however, what Tim likes most about sex is surprise, and this is the one thing that Carrie can't deliver.

He wondered sometimes if he should talk to her about this, but he wasn't quite sure how to go about it. It seemed like it would kind of defeat the purpose, telling someone to please be more spontaneous, and then providing them with detailed instructions for how to go about it.

Only the jackasses in the back row are likely to find the Masons' predicament merely funny. Carrie Mason sets a benchmark showing how far Tom Perrotta can carry his comedy of suburban manners into the nightmare of bad marriage without souring his own good humor.

That good humor is not inconsiderably buoyed by the screwball dynamics of his principals' romance. Ruth meets Tim in hostility: she is outraged when, as soccer coach, he leads his team, on which her younger daughter plays, in a post-game prayer. A more glinting social comedy would ride their confrontation to a showdown with plenty of fireworks, but that kind of staged entertainment would defeat the novel's purpose. When Ruth and Tim do get together to discuss their differences, their resolve is promptly weakened by the comfort that they find in one another.

He looked puzzled, as if he couldn't understand what she was up to, blathering away about whatever popped into her head, as if this were just a friendly social visit. Ruth couldn't help wondering the same thing herself, and the only thought she could muster in her own defense was that it was hard to maintain an attitude of frosty politeness toward someone who was sitting in your kitchen, offering helpful advice about your appliances.

Immured in the suburban quotidian, The Abstinence Teacher flexes with a meaningfulness that never flags, and sets a very high bar for the work that its author has yet to write. (January 2008)

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