I just finished Tom Perrotta’s latest, The Abstinence Teacher. He’s known for exposing the hidden depth — as well as the contradictions — of suburbia. His last novel, Little Children, included a child molester and husbands and wives in varying degrees of crisis and denial, but managed to be funny and touching at the same time.
The plot and characters: This time out, his main characters lock horns on the issues of religion, and how (or if) human sexuality should be taught at the high school level. At first glance, the main characters seem stereotypical: Tim, a born-again soccer coach, is in trouble for leading his team in prayer after an emotional game; Ruth, a knee-jerk liberal, is in hot water for giving out too much sexual information to her students (her motto is “Pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power”). Perrotta goes beneath the surface of these potentially cartoonish figures to show us how they arrived at their opinions, and their struggles to defend and refine them. We go with Tim to an all-men’s Faith Keepers rally, and with Ruth on a date reuniting her with the first man she had a physical relationship with in high school.
“Pastor Dennis had proposed a simple test the men could use in case they found themselves in what they believed to be a morally ambiguous situation, and weren’t sure how to handle it.
‘All you have to do,’ he told them, ‘is to imagine Jesus standing right beside you, and then ask yourself, Would my Companion be proud of me right now? Or would He be ashamed? And you know what? Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, if you have to ask the question, you already know the answer. You need to turn around and get yourself out of there!’
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.”
Perrotta is working on the screenplay for a movie version to be directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team behind Little Miss Sunshine.
» Listen to a sample of the audiobook version on Amazon, read by actor Campbell Scott.