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The Abstinence Teacher
By Tom Perrotta
St Martins Press / ISBN: 978-0-312-35833-4
As I've mentioned here a couple of times before, I've recently become a fairly big fan of movie-friendly author Tom Perrotta; for example, I found his breakthrough 2006 novel Little Children to be a surprisingly complex and subtle look at just what a horrific place the suburbs can be to some people, a stifling environment that squashes all yearning for something beyond the lowest common denominator as thoroughly as a Communist cultural crackdown. Ah, but then I read his latest, 2007's similarly-themed The Abstinence Teacher, and realized something I think I knew all along but that I hadn't wanted to admit to myself; that Perrotta in fact dances on that thin little line between being a good movie-friendly author and a bad one, and that even a small amount of seemingly inconsequential bad decisions on his part concerning character and story will eventually amount to one giant stinker of a book by the end, even with such a book still being 92-percent exactly like the other book that's great and that everyone loves.
Like Little Children, for example, The Abstinence Teacher is also set in a repressive McMansion-happy middle-class suburb in the American Northeast; like Little Children, it's also supposed to be about a subversive sexual tension between people on opposite sides of an arbitrary issue that is arbitrarily important in this gossipy hothouse suburban environment. But see, here's a perfect example of what I'm talking about, because in Little Children Perrotta makes such a relationship work, by making the supposed opposites actually two sides of the same coin; in that book, it makes sense that the former radical-feminist academe and the former frat-boy football hero would have a charged illicit affair, because it was the Kafkaesque environment they were in that brought an end to both their individual hopes and dreams. In his newest book, though, Perrotta tries to use a Fundamentalist Christian church as the catalyst bringing two people from opposite sides of the fence suddenly and unusually together; but in this case such a thing simply doesn't work, because of the church and its actions causing a legitimate rift between anyone who falls on either side of the fence, too big to be overcome in a cutesy romantic way like Perrotta tries to do.
In fact, this is the question I kept coming back to, over and over and over again as I read this novel; of why the main Christian character, former rock star and wicked addict Tim Mason, so thoroughly devotes his life to a cartoonishly evil Evangelical church to begin with. Perrotta tries to explain that it was the church who helped him overcome his addiction, and so Tim feels an irrational fear of falling off the wagon if he were to ever stray from their mustache-twirling neocon activities, but I'm not buying it; I myself am an atheist who's never been through a recovery program, and even I know that there are literally hundreds of politically moderate religious organizations out there designed specifically to help recovering addicts. (This is even a basic precept of the 12 Step Program itself; that the "higher power" at the center of the program isn't necessarily the Christian God, or indeed any personified supernatural being if you don't want it to be.) If I'm a godless heathen and still know all this, it would only be natural that a former addict going through a 12-Step-based recovery would know it all too, and know that he has plenty of alternatives besides sticking around with the Ralph Reed crowd seen here.
In effect it creates this incredibly awkward literary situation for Perrotta to messily have to handle -- a supposedly "nice guy," who you're ultimately supposed to root for, who throughout the book secretly belies his moderate and humanitarian beliefs regarding a wide range of subjects, but who for some inexplicable reason keeps participating in the crazy Moral-Majorityesque antics of this "Tabernacle" group he belongs to, thus providing a convenient form of conflict between him and the liberal Sex Ed teacher who both want to get it on, but can't because of the group's ongoing crusade to not only get her fired but to get an "abstinence-only" educational campaign instituted at the school itself. Ultimately it makes Perrotta just as guilty as network news organizations at presenting an unfair, alarmist portrait of what American faith is actually like -- a world where every citizen is either an abortion-clinic-bombing zealot or a hate-filled Christopher-Hitchens-style "I spit on your puny so-called god" brand of atheist.
The book is full of all kinds of problems like this, where in Little Children he made them work but in The Abstinence Teacher a slight change makes them fail -- take, for example, the way he deftly shows in the first book how surprisingly thrilling an evening football game among middle-aged former athletes can be, while in the newest book he tries to do the same thing with grade-school soccer to dismal effect. In fact, it's almost like Perrotta drew a sketch of Little Children, then used one of those old carbon-copy systems to try to make a copy of it for The Abstinence Teacher. but then had the whole thing blur and smear and get all messy along the way, resulting in something that kinda feels like the former but is definitely not the former, not nearly so in terms of quality and originality. It's a shame to see, after recently becoming such a big fan, and I hope that Perrotta will learn some lessons from this experience; that the literary rules he plays with in his books are subtle ones, ones that deserve to be paid attention to, and that you can't just shoehorn in any idea that might pop into your head ("I know -- I'll do a novel about suburban Fundamentalists!") and expect the formula to work every time. I'll still be reading his books in the future, but will be coming at them now with a much more critical eye.
Out of 10: