Thursday, September 18, 2008

Teach Me Tonight

A few years ago a great movie came out, Little Children, about a woman in the suburbs who begins having an affair with a stay-at-home dad. Separate but loosely inter-twined plots concern a registered sex offender and a retired cop who is after him. It's a brilliant script and people told me the book, by Tom Perrotta, was even better. The voiceover narratives in the movie, presumably lifted from from the book, were really good. I wanted to read the book but never got around to it.

So when I read the reviews for Perrotta's new book The Abstinence Teacher I was intrigued. Time magazine called him the Steinbeck of suburbia (so what does that make Cheever? or Updike?).

It's a good read, a real page turner, but I did not find it particularly sophisticated. In fact it was a jolt to my palette, because I had just finished Pride and Prejudice (my first Austen). Her prose is psychologically insightful and masterfully florid, definitely a product of its time stylistically, but it's easy to see why we still read Austen.

The Abstinence Teacher is a little too self-consciously political, however. Perrotta has tried create dual portraits, both sympathatic, about somewhat extreme characters on the culture war continuum. The first is about a born again Christian, Tim, who was once an addict, but came under the seductive spell of an evangelical pastor. He finds purpose in the church and eventually even marries a young congregant partly to please the pastor and partly to patch his broken heart. When he was using, he fucked up up his life so bad his marriage fell apart, the usual story. He soldiers on, though, and he's noble. And he's not a conservative Christian jerk. He's an ex-rock 'n' roller, and misses it all. He stays open-minded. To illustrate this, there are long patches explaining why he doesn't agree with his church's stance on gay marriage and other extreme positions.

His foil is Ruth, a sex-ed teacher in town who has braved a controversy caused by her telling her ninth graders that some people like oral sex. She is reprimanded, and the conservative school board adopts an abstinence-based sex ed curriculum she is forced to teach. She's miserable. Add to that, she can't get laid and she thinks she's always going to be single.

They are connected by their daughters' soccer team that Tim happens to coach. Ruth makes a scene one day when Tim, spontaneously, asks the team to join him in prayer after a particularly triumphant win.

They become unlikely friends, and the novel is really about how they are managing their own lonliness and ultimately how they let their attraction for each other (more than physical) subvert their socio-religious leanings.

It's a sweet story and I enjoyed it, couldn't put it down, but it's kind of shallow. A beach read.

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