Idol Chatter

tom_perrotta.jpgAs I’ve mentioned in Idol Chatter before, the novelist Tom Perrotta was a college writing teacher of mine and had a major influence on me professionally, so I’ve avoided reviewing his work in the media. But in his latest novel, “The Abstinence Teacher,” Perrotta takes the story to Beliefnet’s turf by portraying what happens when an evangelical church is planted a sleepy, heretofore secular New Jersey suburb. So I can’t resist, and with that disclaimer, here’s my review of this parable of the national Culture Wars writ small, a book that is sad, funny, and always entertaining.
Perrotta has made a career out of fictionalizing, painfully and hilariously, the soullessness of American suburbia. After moving the action to Massachusetts in his last book (“Little Children”), he returns here to his usual stomping grounds of New Jersey. And as usual, we see adults acting like kids, and kids caught in the middle, the victims of their parents’ immaturity, whims, and custody battles.
In “The Abstinence Teacher,” Ruth Ramsey stands in for the secularists, a sex-ed teacher who’s in trouble with the school board for teaching it a little too enthusiastically–and forced instead to use an abstinence-education curriculum. Tim Mason embodies the Christians in town, a former druggie saved by Jesus (and Pastor Dennis) who coaches soccer in part to spend time with his daughter, who lives mostly with her mother.

When Tim instinctively asks the team–which includes Ruth’s daughter–to kneel and pray after an emotional victory, the stage is set for a show-down. But a funny thing happens on the way to the op-ed pages: Tim and Ruth find that they rather like each other as people and understand where the other one is coming from. Not that that changes any minds–but it does make for an engaging story.
Perrotta said in a recent interview that he conceived of the book following the 2004 election and all its talk of “values voters.” He told “I was just like, I’ve got to write about this. I didn’t understand America–or that part of America.”
For a man who didn’t know much about Red State, evangelical America three years ago, Perrotta presents a remarkably balanced portrait of his protagonists and the communities they represent. Ruth–secular, liberal–can be shrill, judgmental, close-minded, prejudiced, but also generous, passionate, idealistic, good-hearted, and forgiving. Tim–born-again Christian conservative–can be shrill, judgmental, close-minded, and prejudiced, but also generous, passionate, idealistic, good-hearted, and forgiving. Both have their core beliefs shaken, and both are changed by the encounter. Wish that happened more in interfaith encounters, whether in formal settings or on soccer fields and driveway conversations.
At moments, the characters and dialogue in “The Abstinence Teacher” can start to feel a bit cliched, but that’s just because we’ve been down this road before, secular vs. religious, liberal vs. secular. There’s little new in our arguments over church-state issues and religious tolerance vs. religious expression. What’s new is walking a mile in the other’s shoes. Whichever side you’re on, “The Abstinence Teacher” can take you along for that mile.

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