The culture wars smolder in 'The Abstinence Teacher'

Tom Perrotta explores suburban evangelicalism in his new novel

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If Ruth Ramsey, the heroine of Tom Perrotta's novel The Abstinence Teacher, placed a personal ad, it might read something like this: Athletic, professional DWF seeks soul mate. Must be good with kids and enjoy sleeping in on Sunday morning.

Ruth comes by her aversion to religion honestly. The sex-education teacher was targeted by the religious right, and now is being forced to teach a curriculum of abstinence with enough disinformation to make a Soviet apparatchik blush. The program is run by JoAnn, a self-proclaimed virgin who looks like Evangelical Barbie.

So, when Ruth meets her daughter's hunky soccer coach, the fact that Tim Mason is a recovering addict (and also married) barely gives her pause. What makes her run screaming is where he chooses to spend Sunday mornings: the church that has spent months hounding her. When Tim leads the girls in a short, spontaneous prayer after a hard-fought victory, Ruth discovers her own fanatical streak. She erupts, dragging her daughter off the field and vowing to see Tim fired.

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It's an interesting time in our culture when, to a certain segment of society, cocaine seems less incendiary than the Gospels. Perrotta, an accomplished satirist who has made the suburbs his personal stomping ground, turns Stonewood Heights ("Sodom with good schools and a 24-hour supermarket") into a battleground for the hearts and minds (and, need I add, souls) of his characters. While Perrotta does do more than give lip service to both sides, it's pretty clear where his allegiance lies.

Perrotta ("Little Children") has said in interviews that he became interested in the evangelical movement after President Bush was reelected in 2004. But he doesn't seem to have spent much time on research. "The Abstinence Teacher" takes some obvious potshots: No one would accuse Pastor Dennis, Tim's spiritual leader, of being overly nuanced, and there's a Promise Keeper-type rally so hollow you could fit Jonah, his whale, and the whole city of Nineveh inside.

What keeps the book from getting too heavy-handed, besides the sharply written humor, is the fact that Perrotta makes his evangelical Christian protagonist less of a zealot than the atheist. Tim, at heart, is a genuinely nice guy, who was never able to stay sober until he found religion. When he meets the leader of his former AA group, she's crestfallen to discover the means of Tim's recovery. "People who weren't saved didn't want to hear you talk about Jesus," Tim thinks resignedly. "It made them uncomfortable, like you were bragging about a great party they hadn't been invited to, though of course they had." But while Tim still sees the Tabernacle as a refuge, he's struggling within the confines of Pastor Dennis's dictates – especially his church-ordered marriage to a nice but bland 24-year-old (which Pastor Dennis arranged after discovering that Tim was having an affair with a married woman).

Meanwhile, Pastor Dennis sees Tim's unplanned action as the next step in the righteous warfare of his Tabernacle. ("Despite its impressive-sounding name, the Tabernacle wasn't a grand religious edifice, a marble-and-stained-glass monument to the glory of God. It was, in fact, a bland commercial building, a two-thousand-square-foot storefront – it had been a Fashion Bug in its previous incarnation….")

Perrotta's first novels, such as "Election," were take-no-prisoners satire involving bright, hyperaware young things. With "Little Children" and now "The Abstinence Teacher," his characters are older and have had the shine rubbed off them. As a result, they're ultimately more satisfying to be around.

There's plenty of wit and intelligence in "The Abstinence Teacher," but it doesn't really break new ground in the dialogue between secular humanists and Evangelicals. Ruth's impassioned speech, in which she calls God "Santa Claus for adults," is pretty standard party line: "Just because my moral system's different from yours, that doesn't mean I don't have one. And by the way, just because something's written down in a book that's a couple of thousand years old, that doesn't necessarily mean it's right."

Fortunately, Perrotta spends less time on the boilerplate than he does on his characters. And it's impossible not to enjoy a book that can toss in a homage to "Some Like It Hot" and dioramas starring action figures of the French resistance fighter G.I. Jean.

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