Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Just Read: The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

Some writers speak for more than themselves, by some insight or quirk able to put into words the unspoken feelings of a whole class or society. Tom Perrotta is one of the best of them: his books, from the early stories in Bad Haircut up to his new novel The Abstinence Teacher, have charted the inner lives of the generation that grew up in the American suburbs of the 1970s. Perhaps I find his books that much more impressive because this is my generation, my life -- because his characters speak in the voices that I know from my friends, my neighbors, and my own head. Perhaps I'm even closer to his works because their different suburbias all have the flavor of New Jersey, where I grew up myself. But even if you're not of my generation, even if you've never been to "Joisy," I can still tell you that Perrotta speaks true, that his people are completely real, wonderfully flawed, conflicted and torn by their own feelings and desires. And you'll recognize those people -- you might not always agree with them, or think that they're doing the right thing, but you will know that they are utterly true to life.

Perrotta's books have all been about how life takes people by surprise; his characters are always getting blind-sided by unexpected events in the lives they'd thought they figured out how to deal with. (And, similarly, his novels always end at the moment when the viewpoint characters would most like time to stop -- the point when they have no idea what will happen next, and want to grab onto that second and hold it forever.)

I'm talking about Perrotta in general, instead of The Abstinence Teacher in particular, because Abstinence won't be published until October, and it's not right to give away too much of a book that far ahead of time. I can say that, like Little Children, his last novel, it focuses on two viewpoint characters. (In fact, this time, there aren't any secondary characters we see the world through, which I missed a bit -- Little Children is one of those books that tries to embrace a whole world, to encompass everything in itself, and it nearly succeeded at that impossible aim.)

The "Abstinence Teacher" of the title is Ruth Ramsey, human sexuality teacher at the local high school -- divorced and raising two growing daughters, trying to come to terms with a manipulated scandal from the year before that saddled her with an unpleasant, retrograde curriculum that she doesn't believe in at all. She's a lot like Sarah from Little Children, but a bit older and more settled, a woman who is finding all of the former purposes in her life (husband, children, work) leaving her behind.

The other viewpoint character is the coach of Ruth's younger daughter's soccer team, Tim Mason, a bundle of contradictions struggling to remake his life. He was a rock musician and now is a mortgage broker; he was a drug addict and now is sober; he was a cynic and now has found a personal savior in Jesus. In fact, he's one of the stalwarts of the evangelical storefront church that tried to hound Ruth out of her job the year before. Again, he has things in common with previous Perrotta heroes, like Jim McAllister from Election or Dave Raymond from The Wishbones -- he'd like to just glide through life, continuing on his path (whichever one that is), but obstacles just keep popping up in his way, forcing him to make decisions and deal with the consequences of his own actions. Like most of us, Tim is afraid that he's not as strong as he needs to be. He's also divorced (and remarried), with a daughter on the soccer team and a complicated relationship with his own ex to mirror Ruth's.

The plot of The Abstinence Teacher pivots on what happens at one soccer game, and that's as much as I can say. This is a novel deeply about people and how they connect or fail to connect with each other. And I think it's one of the best books of the year.

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