Novelist Tom Perrotta is that rare combination: a satirist with heart. His characters, coping with often absurd situations, win us over...
Novelist Tom Perrotta is that rare combination: a satirist with heart. His characters, coping with often absurd situations, win us over even as they dismay us — Perrotta, often subtly, seems to be on everyone’s side.
In his funny, wistful 1997 novel “The Wishbones,” we find ourselves completely identifying with Dave, a suburban man-child in his 30s who’s cheating on his sweet fiancée. He’s trying on a different kind of life before permanently diving into a predictable future, and he’s genuinely bewildered by his predicament; before we know it, we’re sympathizing with how complicated it is to juggle two relationships. And in 2004’s “Little Children,” even the town pariah Ronnie, recently released from prison on charges of indecent exposure to a minor, is treated kindly. We’re taken inside his struggling, unhappy mind, and sympathize with him in spite of ourselves.
“The Abstinence Teacher” (St. Martin’s Press, 358 pp., $24.95), Perrotta’s fine new novel, is less satire than skilled character study, featuring two flawed but irresistible heroes standing on opposite ends of a cultural war. Ruth Ramsey, a high-school sex-ed teacher and divorced mother of two, is in trouble at the novel’s start: Due to community pressure, her liberal curriculum is to be scrapped and replaced with what Ruth calls Abstinence Ed. — “shameless fear mongering, backed up by half-truths and bogus examples and inflammatory rhetoric.”
Hamstrung and horrified, she dutifully explains the dangers of sex and contraception to her students, fantasizing her eventual triumph over this dangerous regime: “In her mind, it played like a Hollywood movie, Michelle Pfeiffer standing before an audience of earnest, good-looking teenagers, rolling a condom onto a cucumber as triumphant music swelled in the background.”
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Tim Mason, a former addict turned born-again Christian, has troubles of his own. His daughter Abby, from a failed first marriage, is becoming distant; his docile second wife (a marriage urged by their very hands-on pastor) seems an enigma. (“They never argued,” the narrator tells us, in eyebrows-raised italics.) As coach of Abby’s soccer team — which also includes Ruth’s daughter Maggie — Tim chooses to lead the players in prayer after a victory. Ruth, appalled, voices her displeasure, and a strange, unclassifiable relationship between the two of them begins.
Perrotta writes in the believable cadences of his characters, slipping inside their minds. Much of “The Abstinence Teacher,” as in his other works, is dialogue, spun in the clipped, wry tones of everyday speech between friends. “At least you’re practicing what you preach,” a friend of Ruth’s says of her new curriculum, trying to cheer her up. “I don’t think it qualifies as abstinence if it’s involuntary,” Ruth replies. “It’s just pathetic.”
The book blooms with wonderfully funny passages in which Perrotta creates a tiny, populated world, ushering multiple characters on and off with tantalizing hints of their own complexity. A scene in the mortgage office where Tim works perfectly creates the microcosm of a group of longtime co-workers, continuing a never-ending conversation. Descriptions of soccer games burst with chaotic energy, with different little girls running in and out of the narrative.
And JoAnn Marlow, the Virginity Consultant hired by Ruth’s school district, almost deserves a novel of her own. A beautiful, extremely poised young woman who brags to teenage audiences about how she’s refraining from sex with her “super hot” fiancé, she makes abstinence seem, in Ruth’s eyes, “steamy and adventurous, a right-wing American variation on Tantric sex.”
Perrotta’s novels have twice been transformed into very good movies (“Election,” “Little Children”). Those who haven’t curled up on the couch with this writer’s books are missing a very great pleasure.
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.