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A review of Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher

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  1. Introduction
  2. The unexpected battleground of a soccer field
  3. Stonewood heights culture war
  4. The oral sex lady
  5. Comparison with the Little Children novel
  6. The Puritan repression of sexual desire
  7. Representation of evangelical culture
  8. Carrie's extreme traditionalism and general blandness
  9. The idea of the supreme duty of Christianity
  10. Conclusion
  11. Bibliography

Tom Perrotta, the reigning bard of American suburbia, can inspire compassion for the most unlikely of subjects. In Election, he humanizes heartless, bitchy Tracy; in Little Children, he measures out kindnesses to Larry the violent racist as well as Ronald the convicted sex offender. But in his latest novel, Perrotta takes on a subject that is perhaps even more difficult to write about in a sympathetic light: evangelical Christianity. The Abstinence Teacher tells the story of an unexpected culture war in cushy northeastern Stonewood Heights, and it all begins when a student in Ruth Ramsey's health class compares oral sex to ?French-kissing a toilet seat?.

Unfazed, Ruth speaks out for the better qualities of the act, stating nonchalantly, ?Some people enjoy it.? But when the fundamentalist Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth gets wind of this, the situation balloons into a community crisis, inspiring newspaper headlines like ?Oral Sex A-OK, Teacher Tells Kids? (16). Spotting an opportunity to spread Christian values to the schools, the Tabernacle is quick to frame this minor conflict in large moral terms, a method proved effective on other Stonewood Heights sins like adult video rentals and banners that say ?Happy Holidays? instead of ?Merry Christmas.?

[...] As covered in a recent New York Times article, churches have initiated programs like the Day Sexperiment, one Texas pastor's challenge to his congregation to take inspiration from Song of Solomon and have sex every day. Hot Christian Sex, with its detailed delineations between godly sexual behavior and sinful sexual behavior?masturbation is okay, but only if the spouse is watching?is an unnerving but accurate depiction of the way the church has tried to corral lust within the boundaries of marriage. [...]


[...] Perrotta has stated about high school, ?It's the best metaphor I can think of for America.?[3] And in fact, the dynamics of many relationships in The Abstinence Teacher smack of high school, the great epoch of self-definition and instability, the time when ego first begins its painful battles with id. Stonewood Heights finds its inhabitants undergoing these struggles all over again. Tim, close to the end of the novel, falls off the wagon at a poker game?held by aging frat boys at a huge, empty model home, a typically arresting touch?and as he stumbles around the grounds, stoned and drunk, he decides to key the word into one of the men's Hummers. [...]


[...] Underneath the wry, pitch-perfect surface of The Abstinence Teacher is a perceptive sociological deconstruction of contemporary American life. In this novel, the most obviously broken institution is marriage; there are almost no examples of a marriage that is not broken or anxiety-ridden. This is the source of a huge problem in the relationship between Randall and Gregory, Ruth's two closest friends; they have been together for twelve years, but Gregory is so jaded about marriage that he is permanently gun- shy. [...]

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