The Abstinence Teacher

Posted on December 26, 2008


I’m not quite sure what went wrong for author Tom Perrotta this time around. I happen to have really liked the two books I read by him before this one. Joe College was heartfelt, funny, and pretty deep for a story ostensibly about such lighthearted fare as college social life. And Little Children—I say this with no exaggeration—was fabulous. That novel was well-paced and strangely riveting.

Unfortunately, The Abstinence Teacher is far less successful. Simply put: it was boring, in the most basic sense. Now, obviously that’s not typically a valid indictment of a book, since a novel’s subject matter can be mundane or slow but still described in beautiful prose (not the case here) or interesting for other reasons, such as social or political implications or relevance to current events. This latter appeal of sometimes-boring stories is what Perrotta seems to be going for here by broaching the ‘hot topic’ of abstinence education, but he does so in an uninteresting and non-controversial way.

Yes, each side of the argument is conveyed (the teacher who feels that abstinence curriculum is a disservice to kids, versus the school board in a small, conservative town that feels it safer to withhold true sex ed). But Perrotta doesn’t choose sides, as Liesl Schillinger acknowledges (“Perrotta has never been one to cast stones”) in her Times review. His refusal to give any sort of answer at all at the end of the novel is annoying, and rather than interesting (i.e. “Some issues cannot be resolved!”) it is actually unimpressive, and kind of seems cowardly.

We’re left to draw our own conclusions, I suppose, about who is correct—the secular crowd (led by reluctant abstinence teacher Ruth Ramsey, who continually gets brought up before the principal for straying from her assigned curriculum) or the religious zealots (led by the other protagonist, Tim Mason, a one-time drug addict who has found Jesus and sworn off booze, pot, porn, and everything else that might be fun). But as I said, Perrotta does not choose a side, and neither can his characters, who at the end are still where they started, essentially.

Sure, Mason leaves his goody-goody church-going second wife, but he never officially leaves the church. He does experience a sort of meltdown in which he returns to his old ways by smoking a joint and having a few beers, so the implication might be that he has seen the foolishness of his religious worship, will leave the church, and has ‘come around’ to Ruth’s side. But all of this is unclear; Tim takes no real action (on the final page he cowardly sits hiding in Ruth’s house while Pastor Dennis bangs on the door, demanding to speak with him) and Ruth does not exactly join the church (though she respects Tim and she allows her daughters, who develop an interest in Jesus, to attend church). So both characters do nothing. Perrotta does nothing with them, just sets up some mildly interesting plot developments (Ruth reconnects with an old chubby-but-lovable high school flame only to discover he has lost weight and become an arrogant prick, Tim begins hanging out with the ‘wrong crowd’ of poker-playing manly men, to the dismay of his obnoxious pal Pastor Dennis) but in the end, nothing changes.

What happens, I believe, is that you’re left agreeing with whichever side you sided with before you began the book. Perrotta’s story doesn’t at all change your views, since the views of the two main characters are not changed. The core driving force of the novel is the battle between religious and secular (or abstinence education and proper sex-ed, conservative and liberal, whichever angle you choose it’s all one battle), and yet neither side prevails. Throughout the book, I felt as though the religious characters who walked around spouting phrases like “This is a good day for Jesus” were ridiculous and deluded, and I identified with Ruth Ramsey, who wants her children to stay far away from those crazies. But when we see into the minds of those religious freaks, whose thoughts are conveyed through third-person omniscience, they are described with equal sensitivity and consideration, so I would bet that a person who supported abstinence education and loved Jesus—say, Sarah Palin—would read this same novel and conclude that it is the Ruth Ramseys of the world who have it wrong and are destined for Hell.

And, again, beyond all that less-than-interesting hooey about religion, the book is plain unexciting. I was never compelled to turn the pages, or stay up late reading. There are isolated moments of excitement (mostly the sex), but the rest is rather uninteresting, and it often feels like Perrotta tries too hard to remind us how much research he conducted. This is most evident in the sections about the procedure of the church services (complete with full sermon!) and in one especially drab three-page account of Tim’s job in loan management.

Perrotta has never been a fabulous writer, in the sense that he’s not showy. His vocabulary is limited, and you won’t find much symbolism or subtle imagery. His novels read more like magazine features. But he is considered a good writer for other reasons, mostly for the dead-on way he portrays average life. In Little Children, for example, he deftly describes the suspenseful build-up that leads to an illicit affair between two married people. You turn the pages rapidly as the two characters continue to meet and flirt but resist being physical, and then, finally, when they do have sex, it’s shocking and steamy. Meanwhile, the central affair is surrounded and bolstered by additional threads of plot, all compelling, including a pedophile’s presence in the town, an ex-cop’s struggle to deal with his anger, and the plight of the spouses of the two protagonists. Each plot line is tied together and interwoven, all are dependent on each other. It all comes together as suspense reaches a boiling point for each subplot, and then climaxes in a wonderful, rewarding unraveling of every character’s best-laid plans.

The Abstinence Teacher lacks that suspense, and even though it’s about a man and a woman who feel that classic love-hate spark (their opposing religious views cause them to clash quite publicly, and yet they are inexplicably attracted to each other), we cannot call it a love story because the two never come together. In fact, they never even kiss. The entire story builds up to their coupling, but Perrotta refuses to give us what has to be coming: the story ends with the two of them in the house, friendly, but not physical. Some would probably praise this, and say that the unfinished romance is the whole point, and that Perrotta is brave to leave us unfulfilled, but that’s garbage.

Plus, there are none of the interesting subplots that we get in Little Children. It’s pretty much all Ruth and Tim, save for the addition of a gay couple Ruth befriends, who break up and then make up, all without any surprising turns or interesting lessons to convey. Ruth’s daughters are intrigued by Tim’s devout behavior (he’s their soccer coach) and so they beg Ruth to allow them to go to church and see what it’s like. She consents, but we never actually find out what the girls felt, or if they liked it, or if they’ll be religious in the future. It’s yet another subplot that gets thrown in but leads nowhere. It’s all dead ends here.

And yet, the book has received great reviews. I can only conclude that this is a classic case of reviewers thinking a book is better than it is because they have been conditioned to think the author is a good writer who puts out good books. After Election, Joe College, and Little Children were all big hits, book critics must have just expected this one to be great as well (talk about highly anticipated, the film rights were purchased before this thing was even published). Then, they reviewed it accordingly, without stopping to acknowledge that it falls flat.

There’s clear evidence in the reviews themselves. Check out the praise that covers the paperback version—all the quotes are about Perrotta’s writing in general, rather than the book itself. Time writes, “Nobody renders the world of soccer moms and sprinklers and SUVs like Perrotta. He’s the Steinbeck of suburbia.” Flashy catch line, yes, and the alliterative title may be deserved, but Perrotta already established that reputation. This book doesn’t have any soccer moms, sprinklers, or SUVs. The comment praises Perrotta, not The Abstinence Teacher.

Again, just below that one, a quote from the Times Book Review calls Perrotta “a truth-telling, unshowy chronicler of modern-day America.” Yup, that he is: truth-telling, indeed, and definitely unshowy. But what about this book? What truth does it tell? That the battle between religious and secular rages on? Why did I need an unremarkable novel to tell me what I already knew from the news?

The other quote on the back cover, from The Seattle Times, tops off the group: “Those who haven’t curled up on the couch with this writer’s other books are missing a very great pleasure.” Yeah, maybe his other books.

I wish the many people who raved about this one would read it again, and pause for a moment to think about how bored they are when slogging through it. The Abstinence Teacher was unfortunately disappointing. I cannot recommend it, though I’ll probably still give Perrotta’s next novel a chance. After all, Chuck Palahniuk keeps fucking up, and I keep going back for more. And this was only Perrotta’s first failure, in my view.

Posted in: DBR Blog