St. Augustine of Hippo once quipped to God, “Give me chastity and continence, but not quite yet.” It’s hard to say whether he knew he was quipping. In %%AMAZON=0312358334 The Abstinence Teacher%%, Tom Perrotta’s latest novel, the quips are more explicit: “Ruth said, doing her best to make this sound like a lighthearted quip”; “George muttered, as if this quip had been intended seriously”; “C. J. quipped”; “George quipped.” One blurb tells us the book is “ruefully funny,” another, that it’s “disarmingly funny but rueful.” Get out the safety scissors: This is a quip-and-save circular if ever one was.
But wait! It’s a “brave novel,” too, presumably because it takes the unusual step of making an obvious figure of fun, an Evangelical Christian suffering in the mire of contemporary suburbia, into a character darker and more complex than Ned Flanders. It risks the disappointment of readers who want to see Perrotta’s protagonist crucified on a cross of comic gold. Don’t get me wrong: I love Perrotta, whose novel Election was adapted into one of the funniest movies of the 1990s. Unfortunately, his new book, which depicts a “fight” between secular enlightenment and theocratic creep, rarely manages to be funny, while getting stuck in clichés that it doesn’t seem to recognize as such.
The anti-hero is a youth soccer coach, Christian, father, husband, ex-husband, and recovering addict named Tim, who runs afoul of his team’s parents by asking the kids to join him in post-game prayer. The heroine is Ruth, the sort of attractive divorcée one can see-and probably will-finding the good in Hugh Grant or Vince Vaughn next Christmas season. Ruth is the reverse of Tim’s coin, a Sex Ed teacher who’s under fire for questioning a new abstinence-based curriculum. She leads the crusade against Tim’s corruption of the children in his charge-which includes her own.
The idea that the school system that’s attacking Tim would also punish Ruth is a jarring contradiction, but, given that parts of Perrotta’s story have been snipped from the headlines, it’s a safe bet that he can cite precedent for the whole.
Perhaps that’s why his story succeeds in spite of itself. It does a fine job of illustrating adult irrationality, and kids’ impatience with adults behaving like kids. The children in The Abstinence Teacher are largely receptive to religion, seeing parental objections as a power struggle rather than genuine concern for their curiosity and best interests. It also makes conventional Sex Ed seem as pious, juvenile, and embarrassing as the Promise Keepers rally it lampoons in its final pages. If anything, it’s a grown-up objection to “because I said so.” It recognizes that any rigid program for explaining or improving human behavior is bound to fail, especially if it’s rooted in good intentions.
But Perrotta’s good intentions are on ostentatious display here. Ruth wants to hate Tim, but gives him a pass because she can see that religion has turned his crumbling life around. Tim wants to “judge” Ruth, but he knows that she’s a good mother, just a bit frazzled by the complexities and contradictions of modern life. Tim’s spirit guide, Pastor Dennis, is dogmatic and obnoxious, but clearly has Tim’s soul’s welfare in mind. And so on. This begin to feel less like nuanced empathy than like a rule Perrotta set for himself to avoid charges of bias or caricature. The book is, in the end, too equitable to be either satire or realism.
A subject as divisive as how or even whether kids should be taught in school about sex and morality demands satire, even mean-spiritedness, from both camps. What Perrotta supplies instead-and this may in part reflect real life-are mild letters from the Concerned Citizens Association, or lawsuits, or deflationary “quips,” or a kind of romantic-comedy relativism that asks us to accept that we’re all equally screwed up, after all, and that our methods for dealing with this are all, in the popular parlance, “equally valid.”
Surely our views on this issue, or any issue, can’t be forged without a proper crucible-that is, without spirited disagreement-which means something other than a Made-for-TV fantasia in which the Christian coach and the Sex Ed teacher wind up in (appropriately ambiguous) love.
Whoops-have I given something away? Well, if the “monosyllabic” teenagers, Cambridge-bound gay sidekicks, and cartoonishly repressed and vicious Professional Virgin don’t tip you off to the impending yawn, nothing will.
Stefan Beck is a writer living in Palo Alto, California. Mr. Beck has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and other publications. He also blogs for Commentary’s Horizon, The New Criterion‘s Armavirumque, and Jewcy‘s Cabal.