Thursday, June 2, 2011

Just say no

Tom Perrotta knows the suburbs. According to Wikipedia [sorry!], he was born there and lives there now. He's like a critical big sister -- he can zero in pitilessly on the flaws, but underneath there's a certain amount of affection. In The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta cleverly creates protagonists who have no need to leave the leafy precincts of Stonewood Heights -- teachers, pastors, employees of mall stores, etc.) so there's no big city to get in the way of the tight, inward-looking community and its self-involved residents.

Ruth Ramsey is the titular teacher. A sex ed teacher in a middle school, she believes that frank and open information will best prepare her students as they (inevitably) explore their sexuality. She responds casually to a student's question about oral sex and finds herself under attack by the members of the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth, an evangelical church led by the fervent Pastor Dennis (who -- in a flashback -- has a literal "come-to-Jesus" moment by destroying his employer's consumer electronics store). The school board bows to the Tabernacle's pressure and insists that Ruth begin teaching an abstinence-only curriculum. A divorced mother with two tween daughters, Ruth reluctantly agrees. It's just one more thing that disappoints her about her life -- she's been unwillingly abstinent herself for too long.

Ruth's younger daughter Maggie is a promising soccer player, and one Saturday Ruth catches a game. She also catches the eye of Maggie's coach, Tim Mason. Another parent informs her that Tim and his assistant coach are members of the Tabernacle, which has Ruth rethink her attraction. But when she sees Tim kneel on the ground with his team after the match for a spontaneous prayer, Ruth loses it -- grabs Maggie by the hand and stalks off the field. She tries to muster up support to dismiss Tim for inappropriate behavior, but many of the girls' parents seem willing to let it lie.

What Ruth doesn't know (yet), but we do, is that Tim is a recovering substance abuser, whose wife divorced him after one too many binges taking their daughter with her. Several years later, he found Pastor Dennis and the Tabernacle. And while grateful that Jesus helped him in his recovery, Tim's disappointments in his life mirror Ruth's. He's trapped in a Tabernacle-imposed marriage while still lusting after his ex-wife, his visits with his daughter are limited and strained, and his craving for alcohol and drugs isn't going away. He knows he's in trouble over the impromptu prayer, and he contacts Ruth to see if they can work it out between them.

I enjoyed this very much -- not just for its satire (A whole chapter is devoted to a book recommended by Pastor Dennis: Hot Christian Sex: The Godly Way to Spice Up Your Marriage by the Reverend Mark D. and Barbara G. Finster [don't the names just make you giggle?] -- "According to the Finsters, sex between married Christians was a whole lot more freewheeling than Tim had realized."), but for its characters and their complex motivations. Many are denying themselves (abstaining from) something -- sex, alcohol, food, love, faith, companionship. Those who aren't -- minor characters, mostly -- are seemingly the happiest. Tim, in his extremis of Jesus vs. everything in his life that matters to him, is particularly compelling, believable and utterly sympathetic. I liked that Perrotta really doesn't choose sides here -- while Pastor Dennis is on the easily caricatured side, many of his Tabernacle flock are fully realized individuals. And the non-believing suburbanites come in for much skewering as well.

One of the reasons that I liked Tim so much, I think, is because of the book's narrator, Campbell Scott. His subdued, deadpan reading of Tim's dialogue and the portions of the novel from Tim's perspective just seemed perfectly attuned to his quiet character -- with all those emotions and addictive desires roiling just underneath the surface. There is just the barest edge of sarcasm when he reads the funny parts. Scott rarely raises his voice and only slightly varies his delivery, and occasionally I would have trouble tracking which character was speaking. I really didn't mind this, though, because his subtle command of the book makes for riveting listening. I spent most of the novel sitting quietly and paying close attention just in case I might have missed something.

Years ago (seven, to be exact), I listened to Scott read Michael Hoeye's Time Stops for No Mouse. It was probably on cassette!! My brief notes note Scott's "understated" reading, which is a word I would apply to this book as well. He's extremely pleasant to listen to, so I might cue up another one with him narrating. He's got an interesting resume.

For the first time, I listened to a book almost entirely in the company of another person. We had a long, dull drive to Ashland, Oregon (one I've taken over and over again) and I wanted to convince the driver that an audiobook would speed the miles away. We didn't quite finish the book on the journey, but it sure made the ten hours there and back fun. However, the listening together was weird for me. Sure, there were the sex parts ... but it wasn't just that. The private experience reading has been for me was now something completely different.

At a YALSA preconference on audiobooks in 2006, Bruce Coville told a story about sharing a cross-country ride with his daughter and how the books got them talking about all sorts of things. (Ooh! I hauled out my report for this preconference: "The most important thing I learned was how audiobooks enable us to listen to stories together. They provide a shared literary experience that most of us haven’t had since we began reading on our own.") Maybe I'm not ready to have a shared literary experience with my driver. I'm taking much longer car trip later this summer (to Grand Teton National Park) with a very close friend. I wonder if listening with her will be different?

[The image is the Hall of Abstinence in Beijing's Temple of Heaven Park, a photograph taken by Vmenkov. I've been there!]

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
Narrated by Campbell Scott
Audio Renaissance, 2007. 10:23

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