There is nothing particularly "black" about The Abstinence Teacher. Tom Perrotta's new novel does not have any significant black characters. It is set in the kind of upper-middle-class suburban environment where the minorities are Indians or Persians rather than African Americans. And while a church plays a major role in the story, it's a non-denominational, white, evangelical church, not an AME or CME one.
But anyone of any color who has had to choose between a principle and a paycheck would do well to read this book. So would anyone wrestling with the incompatibility of religious belief and modern science. Or anyone confronting the challenges of raising children in families roiled by divorce and remarriage. Or, for that matter, anyone who enjoys a good story, peopled with characters you care about, who are trying to figure out how to navigate through recognizable situations.
The character at the center of The Abstinence Teacher is Ruth Ramsey, the human sexuality teacher at a high school in a well-to-do Northeastern suburb. As the story opens, Ruth is reveling in her job, helping her students navigate the treacherous currents of adolescent sexuality with three core principles: "Pleasure is good. Shame is bad. And knowledge is power."
Ruth prides herself on being honest with her students. So when one of them asks her a question about oral sex, she provides an honest answer: "Well, from what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it." That answer quickly brings Ruth face-to-face with a determined challenge to her beliefs about education, sexuality, and truth.
For while Ruth has been focused on the world inside the school's walls, a powerful new phenomenon has been growing outside the walls—the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, a rapidly-growing megachurch whose charismatic pastor is looking for an issue that will provide him the opportunity to flex the church's newfound muscles. And Ruth's open, progressive approach to sex education fits that bill perfectly.
The story that ensues pits two mutually incompatible certainties against each other—Ruth's deeply felt belief that knowledge about sex will keep her students safe, and Pastor Dennis' equally passionate conviction that abstinence is the only thing public schools should teach to the children in their charge. Perrotta's fast-moving tale is driven by believable, human characters: the stoner-musician-turned-churchgoing-soccer-coach who, to Ruth's dismay, introduces her 9-year old daughter to the church; the school principal who forces Ruth to choose between her beliefs and the job she loves; the beautiful, virginal, imperious 20-something woman whose abstinence curriculum the school adopts; the gay teacher desperately hoping his partner will propose a marriage that will not be legally recognized in the state where they live.
"The Abstinence Teacher" is Perrotta's fourth book. In his first three, he has established himself as an uncannily acute chronicler of the mores and habits of suburban America in the 21st century, a John Updike for today. His eye for telling detail and his ear for the inflections of his character's conversations are unfailing.
Here's Ruth talking to her daughters, nine-year old Maggie and 14-year old Eliza, after Maggie's soccer coach led her team in a spontaneous post-game prayer that outraged Ruth and created the kind of confrontation that produces a searing rift in a community and acute embarrassment for the child:
"Please," Maggie said softly. "Just mind your own business."
"This is my business," Ruth said. "Your coach has no right to make you pray to a God you don't believe in."
Eliza snickered. "You mean a God you don't believe in."
"That's right. I don't believe in Coach Tim's God, and I don't think your sister does, either." Ruth turned to Maggie, suddenly worried that Eliza knew something she didn't. "You don't, do you?"
"I dunno," said Maggie. "Nobody ever taught me about it."
"Well, I do," Eliza said. "I believe in Coach Tim's God."
"No, you don't," Ruth snapped.
"Do you think I'm an idiot?" Eliza shot back. There was a whitehead at the corner of her left nostril that Ruth had to restrain herself from popping.
"No," Ruth assured her. "And I don't think you're a born-again, fundamentalist, evangelical, nutjob Christian, either. Because that's what he is."
"I believe in God." Eliza spoke slowly and calmly, locking eyes with her mother. "And I believe that Jesus is His only son, and that He died on the cross for my sins."
Maggie was staring at her sister, clearly startled by this news. Ruth's immediate impulse was to try to convince herself that Eliza wasn't serious, that she was just crying out for attention, but it didn't work. There was something in her face and voice—the eerie serenity of the believer—that couldn't be denied.
Perrotta's personal sympathies clearly lie closer to Ruth than to Pastor Dennis. If there is a weakness in this novel, it is Perrotta's inability to capture the mesmerizing appeal of the modern, entrepreneurial megachurch for 21st century Americans contending with declining wages, dwindling oil supplies, global instability and the end of American hegemony. The rapid growth of these churches, part of our country's unique brand of first-world religiosity, is a phenomenon that one wishes Perrotta had examined with more of the non-judgmental generosity that characterizes his treatment of single parents, gays, soccer moms and other denizens of the world he creates.
But this flaw is the only discordant note in Perrotta's wonderfully wrought symphony of modern suburban life. This is a book well worth reading, and reading slowly enough to appreciate in all of its subtlety and charm.
Harold J. Logan is a businessman, writer and social entrepreneur who lives in Atlanta. A former metro and national reporter of the Washington Post, he is a cofounder of the W.E.B. Dubois Society .