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December 16, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | December 16, 2008 |

Oh, Tom Perrotta. Your book, Little Children, was diverting and attractively packaged; if not well written, at least it was intriguing. It held my attention. And so when I saw that your newest paperback, The Abstinence Teacher, was available in the bookstore, I read a few pages and bought it on the promise that it might be what the blurbs promised it would be: A “truth-telling… chronicle of modern-day America.” Oh, Tom Perrotta. How you fooled me. How you betrayed my trust.

At first glance, having a teacher of sex-ed match wits against a Bible-thumping, newbie Christian seemed right out of the playbook of “Wife Swap,” but I thought, “This is the truth-telling chronicler of modern-day America — he will find nuance and irony in this situation that ‘Wife Swap’ could never find.” What first glance didn’t tell me, however, was that you would provide characters that so wholly and dogmatically played into type that it would be impossible to finesse nuance or denote irony. Two diametrically opposed characters who seem to have neither empathy for the positions of the other side nor a deep understanding of what their own positions mean? Of course. What else could I expect from the truth-telling chronicler of modern-day America?

I was mildly amused when you introduced me to Ruth, the sex-ed teacher who is now being forced to teach abstinence-only education after a debacle with the Bible-thumping minority in her town — the “Tabernacle folks,” as they’re called. Ruth is A LIBERAL, and you are very clear to point this out. She is adamantly opposed to abstinence-only education and condescending towards those who are not (not that they’re any more likable — conservative religious prudes, the lot of them!); she is also adamantly opposed to RELIGION, as we discover when she objects vocally to prayers at her daughter’s soccer game. Despite this, as a LIBERAL, Ruth is OPEN-MINDED, which you show through a series of dinner with her best friends: a pair of gay men. She also consents, albeit reluctantly, to allow her daughters to attend church. Good LIBERAL Ruth.

And then you introduce us to Tim, a new CHRISTIAN who is a member of the “Tabernacle folks” and the instigator of the soccer-game prayer. A recovering substance abuser (for drugs and, possibly, alcohol), Tim really needed Jesus. We know he is a CHRISTIAN because he PRAYS at soccer games, goes to CHURCH regularly, and carries a BIBLE. Tom, you tantalized me with visions of nuance when you showed that Tim is conflicted about his newfound faith — that he wants to be a good person but also really desires parts of his old life. I applauded you for this.

But, Tom, why are your characters so boring and so unlikable? Is it because neither are believable for what they are? Is it because I had the sensation that you had no real concept of what a sex ed teacher is like, that though you did your best to approximate a sex ed teacher’s frame of mind and emotions, you never really got into Ruth’s character’s skin? Or was it because you seemed as if you’d never really tried to live the church life, only that you’d gone to church once or twice, and, as such, your portrayal of Tim ended up being flat and lifeless?

Tom, why did your sex ed teacher not know better than to mention Planned Parenthood during a class in which she was supposed to be teaching abstinence-only education? Especially given that there was a member of the “Tabernacle folks” in the room? Or why did your new Christian, Tim, have so little knowledge of what it actually means to be a Christian, even though he ostensibly attended a very conservative church?

Your writing annoyed me throughout this book, Tom, and for several reasons. First, I felt like everyone and everything was painted in broad strokes. Rich, suburban white people live in mini-mansions and drive giant SUV’s and are inexplicably sad inside — those might all be true descriptors, but you need to be a little more penetrating in order to be truthful in such a portrayal. Or how about this one: all gay men are urbane, call each other “honey” and have single women as best friends? Or: all men when they get together talk about sex and porn, thereby making the Christian in their midst feel uncomfortable. Or: sin, for a Christian, comes down to sex, alcohol, and lust. Or: all Christians are boring and puritanical, or fanatical and meglomaniacal. Or: all single women only think about the last time they had sex.

It’s as if Paul Haggis wrote a novel.

The second reason you annoyed me, Tom Perrotta — YOU HACK — is that you missed so many opportunities to explore nuance. For instance, rather than removing Ruth from her position as “abstinence teacher” (and thereby deus ex machina-ing her out of a main source of conflict), you could have explored the compromises she had to make in order to teach abstinence and still maintain her values. Or how she went about truly subverting the system (rather than a single instance of wearing a short skirt, or of advocating Planned Parenthood, stupidly). You could have explored the conflict Tim has when he realizes that this Christian thing might not be for him. Well, you could have explored it in a meaningful way, rather than having him simply walk out of a “Faith Keepers” meeting and spend a night away from his wife.

You could have made innumerable choices in order to create a novel that really went beneath the surface of modern suburban life, Tom; however, you chose instead to create a novel that relied not on characters but on stereotypes and not on plot but on a flat criticism of SOCIETY. Such a shitty read. You bastard.

This review has been selected from the ongoing Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. Check here for more of Lindsay’s reviews.

Cannonball Read / Lindsay

Books | December 16, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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