After making a name for himself on the strength of deftly comic studies of perpetual adolescence like The Wishbones, Bad Haircut, and Joe College, Tom Perrotta took a leap forward in ambition with Little Children, a novel that confronted suburban malaise more directly than ever before. That trend continues with The Abstinence Teacher, an improbably light-footed satire on the culture wars that picks apart evangelical fervor without denying the religious impulse. What might have been a politically loaded, cartoonish battle between strip-mall Bible-thumpers and their sexually liberated foes becomes, in Perrotta's hands, an ironic, deeply empathetic novel that still lands a few well-timed jabs. Though Perrotta doesn't hide his contempt for abstinence education, the book's title doesn't even tell half the story; it's merely a jumping-off point into the lives of characters who don't always practice what they preach.
A tenured—and in her mind, at least, beloved—middle-aged health teacher at a suburban high school, Ruth strives to discuss sex as frankly as she can in class, though she's not getting much action at home. After voicing the seemingly innocuous (not to mention obvious) claim that "some people might enjoy" oral sex, Ruth is besieged by a powerful cabal of local conservatives intent on changing the curriculum. She reaches her breaking point after one of her daughter's soccer games, when the jubilant coach leads the girls in an impromptu prayer. From there, the novel shifts gears and follows the coach, Tim, a recent evangelical convert who turned to God after an addiction to drugs and alcohol ruined his marriage.
Perrotta takes a calculated risk by derailing Ruth's story to plumb deeper into Tim's life—the book is The Abstinence Teacher, not The Soccer Coach—but he knows this seriocomic terrain well. In other circumstances, Tim could be Dave Raymond in The Wishbones, a long-in-the-tooth guitarist who still listens to The Grateful Dead in his car. Though Perrotta suggests that religion is just another fix for Tim's addictive personality, and he gets plenty of comedic mileage out of evangelical absurdities, he stops short of declaring such spiritual quests illegitimate. At the same time, he rewards Ruth's liberal proselytizing with a divorce and a painfully arid sexual history. Rather than force Tim and Ruth together too vigorously, Perrotta allows their wayward paths to cross, and delights in their flawed stabs at integrity and fulfillment.