Their kids aren’t so little, but the parents that Tom Perrotta skewers in his genial new suburban satire, The Abstinence Teacher, are every bit as childlike as the protagonists of his fuzzy 2004 hit, Little Children. And once again, these hapless men and women have been caught in the crossfire of a semi-hysterical community battle. This time, over the proper curriculum for a sex education class.
For over a decade, Ruth Ramsey, the divorced mother of two school-age daughters, has taught high schoolers about IUDs and latex condoms. She had become ”a beloved figure — or so she liked to think — or the unflappable, matter-of-fact candor with which she discussed the most sensitive of subjects.” Then, one momentous day she issues breaking news on oral sex: ”Some people enjoy it.”
Ruth thus draws the ire of born-again Christian parents who threaten a lawsuit. To placate them, the school brings in dolled-up ”Virginity Consultant” for balance. ”I’m twenty-eight years old, I’m a Leo, I’m a competitive ballroom dancer, and my favorite band is Coldplay,” announces the consultant, one of Perrotta’s zestiest comic creations. ”Oh yeah, and one more thing: I’m a virgin.”
The irony here is that ”the Oral Sex Lady” (as Ruth becomes known) hasn’t been having much sex either, oral or otherwise. She spends most of her free time at her younger daughter’s soccer games, or with her gay best friend and his long-time partner. When confronted with an appealing opportunity to live up to her nickname, Ruth begs off for complicated reasons even she does not completely understand. In low moments, thinking back on a lifetime of tipsy, unwise, and uninspired nookie, Ruth ”had no choice but to admit that she regretted most of the sex she’d ever had.”
Meanwhile, hunky soccer coach Tim Mason, a recovering addict and all-around screwup, has found redemption through a fiery evangelical congregation led by a geeky ex-Best Buy salesman. Tim has recently married a wholesome fellow churchgoer, and through their lovemaking — obediently launched on their wedding night — has been sanctioned by the Lord, it has become a wearisome chore. Tim finds himself driving around in the dark listening to the Grateful Dead, gazing wistfully at bar lights, and thinking about Ruth.
Perrotta leaves the fate of these sweet, baffled characters hanging, which is a disappointment. But he resists giving firm answers to the thorny moral questions lurking in his material — which is a relief. Sex, this novel suggests, may not be the sacred mystery that Perrotta’s abstinence advocates say it is. But it remains more mysterious than Ruth, in her peppy lectures, wants to admit. B+