It's the rare character who can't get a little compassion from Tom Perrotta. Known for suburban social commentaries like Election and Little Children, Perrotta is a surprisingly soft-hearted satirist, cushioning wit with the sympathy of an afternoon talk-show host. Whether describing an uptight supermom or a grief-stricken child molester, Perrotta rarely fails to see the humanity in his characters. So how does he do with conservative Christians in The Abstinence Teacher?

In Perrotta's newest novel, America's culture wars boil down to the troubles of two lonely suburbanites, Ruth Ramsey and Tim Mason. Ruth is a divorced sex-ed teacher whose philosophy is, "Pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." When she takes one lesson too far, telling her students that some people actually enjoy oral sex, a family from a local fundamentalist church, "The Tabernacle," threatens to sue. The school board descends with a new abstinence-only curriculum, and Ruth is outraged. She balks at having to teach "a farce, an attack on sexuality itself, nothing more than officially sanctioned ignorance."

Ironically, Ruth's own life is fairly joyless. So when she meets Tim, the attractive coach of her daughter's soccer team, she's predisposed to feel weak in the knees. But—oh no!—barely two pages go by before it turns out that Tim is one of "them," those loony legalists who preach that abstinence is sexy.

This is all straight from the headlines, but once Perrotta begins to write from Tim's perspective, he has some surprises in store. Though Tim tries to be a faithful Christian, he's a former addict who hankers after his old trinity of drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll. Marriage to a church girl (Carrie, my favorite character) hasn't dampened his wanderlust, even though the couple has followed the advice of their church-approved marriage manual, Hot Christian Sex (a send-up of the LaHayes & Co.). With his tenuous faith and occasional slip-ups, Tim frequently finds himself on the wrong side of Pastor Dennis.

Which brings me to my main criticism: It's obvious that Perrotta did some research for this book (he mentions a Promise Keepers rally in the acknowledgments), but how much? His Tabernacle strikes me as literary jerry-building, an offhand composite of theological strains and worship styles that will probably ring true to an average reader, but not to an insider. It's little wonder that Tim Mason doesn't get much out of his Christianity—it's a fiction.

Still, The Abstinence Teacher isn't all bad. The relationships are believable, especially when Tim and Ruth retreat from their stereotypes long enough to find each other. And it's gratifying to watch Ruth's daughters rebel in an unexpected direction—defying their mother by heading off to church to find Jesus. The only victim left is Carrie, a genuine and all-too-familiar Christian woman who deserves a faithful husband and a decent church. Sadly, she won't find either in this novel.

Betty Smartt Carter, a novelist and Latin teacher living in Alabama.

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