The Abstinence Teacher

The Abstinence Teacher - Tom Perrotta The abstinence movement and the Christian right are two of my favourite topics in relation to American politics, one of my strange hobbies. They both fascinate and horrify me in equal measure and I’m always on the lookout for books, fiction and non-fiction, related to them to fuel my interest. I’ve only read one Tom Perrotta novel before, “Little Children”, which I enjoyed immensely and found to be a well orchestrated satire on suburban life and its less than picture perfect truth, so I entered reading “The Abstinence Teacher” optimistically, only to find myself very disappointed very quickly.This book isn’t populated by characters; it’s populated by mouthpieces for opinions. Every character acts like a mouthpiece, everything they say seems to be taken from a newspaper article debating the pros and cons of religious and sexual issues, and their functions as mouthpieces don’t give them any room to develop as fully rounded characters independent of the debate Perrotta wants to have. They’re not even well rounded opinions to spout off. There is very little resolution to these points and they don’t seem to develop beyond a few buzzwords or commentary rants better suited to a newspaper opinion page with a limited word count. Things happen and there are some interesting set-ups for what promise to be bigger and more explosive events but they seldom come to fruition. It’s such a disappointment because the potential is definitely there. We only get one or two real scenes of Ruth teaching abstinence and the school politics of it all but Perrotta seems bored, as if he doesn’t want to create any real conflict. I wanted to see more of the newly instigated abstinence classes’ impact on the school and its students. I wanted to see how big an impact the growing churches were having on the community (it’s hinted at and ranted about as yet another mouthpiece opinion but never given much development beyond that.) I wanted to see more of Ruth’s daughters choosing to engage with the church and the tensions it created with Ruth and her anti-church stance. There was plenty of room for these things, why weren’t they there?There is no real story to speak of, events just ramble along and meander back and forth as the point-of-view switches from divorced mother and health teacher Ruth to born again Christian with a crisis Tim. These two characters are supposed to be engaged in a battle of wits and morals, one being the atheist with a grudge against the radically increasing Christian presence in her school, the other the former drug addicted rock-star who found solace in Christ and wants to be a good person through his teachings. Once or twice, we’re treated to an interesting conversation between the two, and it is interesting to hear their parental stories, but since they spend so little page time together, it makes the weak, abrupt conclusion all the more baffling and lazy. I can’t say I especially disliked Ruth or Tim. As I said before, they were mainly mouthpieces but they did have a lot of things I really liked, such as Tim’s struggle to be what he saw as a good Christian man and Ruth’s relationship with her daughters. Instead of any real development in these traits that actually would have had relevance to the plot, we’re treated to page after page of tell-don’t-show info-dumps of Ruth’s teenage sex escapades, her desperation for a man (because a strong, independent and intelligent 40 something single woman must be in want of a man at every possible moment) and other bites of information that could have been woven much less awkwardly into the story to a much more effective result. There were some moments crying to be re-written, the biggest one that stands out in my mind being a moment where Tim muses about homosexuality and how he doesn’t think it’s a sin (told with the subtlety of a sledgehammer with a talk radio show) when we have an established character who is a gay man working in the high school with Ruth who could have been used much more effectively to portray the topic of homosexuality and its place in the Christian right and schools. Any potential for wit and truly successful satire is gone and the rest just falls flat. (I’m also worried since Perrotta’s prose bugged me quite a bit yet it reminds me so much of my own. I’ve got some rewrites to do.)Overall, “The Abstinence Teacher” was such a disappointment. It was incredibly mediocre, but not without some merit, and failed to truly get a sense of the contradictions and difficulties of the abstinence movement and the growing presence of the Christian right in public services in America. Perrotta seems more concerned with painting a black and white picture with very broad strokes when what was really needed was a much finer brush and a wider palate of colours.