"Some people enjoy it." In Tom Perrotta's excellent new novel, The Abstinence Teacher, these four little words, uttered by Stonewood Heights' high school health teacher Ruth Ramsey, unleash a controversy that ultimately results in the school adopting an abstinence-based sex-ed curriculum, and Ruth getting reassigned to teach math, a subject where she will never again be called upon to field a student's question about why anyone would ever do something so disgusting as to have oral sex.
The eminently likeable Ruth believes that "Pleasure Is Good, Shame Is Bad, and Knowledge Is Power," a personal credo that is increasingly at odds with the tenor of her hometown, where a small but influential new church has "begun a crusade to cleanse Stonewood Heights of all manner of godlessness and moral decay, as if this sleepy bedroom community was an abomination unto the Lord, Sodom with good schools and a 24-hour supermarket."
Ruth is unwillingly drawn into conflict with church members, first as they challenge her curriculum, and later as she butts heads with the religious-but-still-kinda-sexy Tim Mason, with whom she has an irresistible chemistry.
Perrotta's angle here, and what makes this book more than just a wry study in the attraction of opposites, is that the fictional town of Stonewood Heights is no predictably narrow-minded and conservative small town. Rather it is a "well-to-do Northeastern suburb, not liberal by any means, but not especially conservative, either." Ruth never expects to wake up one morning into an environment in which religious attitudes govern what she teaches; it's a shock to her, a sudden hearkening back to a more repressive time, and she doesn't take it seriously until it's too late.
Perrotta is a master at weaving social commentary into a deceptively straightforward, even mundane narrative (see: Little Children, Election). Here, his prose is so deft and funny (one character "looked the way he always did in the morning, like he'd been up half the night sweating on the toilet") that it almost comes as a surprise to realize that the book you're so enjoying is actually a pointed commentary on the increasingly evangelical nature of American religious life, and a cautionary tale about the effects such evangelism can have on the unwitting rest of us.