Difficult people

By JAMES PARKER  |  October 3, 2007

His second was 2004’s Little Children, later turned into a movie for which Perrotta’s screenplay (co-written with Todd Field) received an Oscar nomination. The children of the title are not the suburban toddlers whose playgrounds and swimming pools provide the setting for half the book’s action, but rather their parents: the shifty, immature adults who fantasize about one another across the swing set while shrieking preschoolers move between them like pendulums.

“Early on,” says Perrotta, “the people who read it were my natural readers, who knew what to expect maybe from my other work, but were also comfortable with some of the stuff I was dealing with. Then, because it did well, it reached this whole other audience that I’d never had before — much more mainstream, including people from the middle of the country who were Christians. And you can actually track it as you go through the Amazon reviews: the early ones are just ecstatic, and then gradually this kind of angry, uncomprehending note takes over: ‘Why did I read this? The guy who leaves his wife for a prom queen, these people who are having affairs while their kids are napping. Why do I have to read about these people? They’re so depressing, they’re so stupid, so miserable, they’re all immoral.’ ”

Which brings us to The Abstinence Teacher, his latest, to be published on October 18 by St. Martin’s Press. The book is set in a place called Stonewood Heights, somewhere in New England, where sex-ed teacher Ruth Ramsey is having a bit of a run-in with the forces of religious reaction. Challenged by a fastidious student to defend the sordid practice known as “oral sex,” Ruth introduces the difficult notion of pleasure. “Some people enjoy it,” she says. Oh dear. Now the entire school district is being sued for emotional besmirchment and un-categorizable offenses against the teenage mind, and Ruth’s job is on the line. An organization called Wise Choices for Teens is patrolling the hallways. The administrative body is cowed. And when Ruth hears her daughter’s soccer coach gathering his team for a victory prayer to the Lord, she flips. Hoist the banners of the culture war!

The original impulse behind The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta says, was political. “I started all of this in 2004,” he says, “around the time of the Bush reelection, when everybody I talked to was hoping like hell that Bush would get defeated. Obviously, half of the country felt otherwise.” Like many of us, Perrotta was briskly acquainted with the privileged, almost exotic nature of his Blue State–ness. “One of the key parts of Bush’s campaign was the issue of gay marriage. And to live here, the one place where gay marriage is legal, and knowing married gay couples, and hearing them get vilified. . . . I’d go on all these blogs and Web sites and it was like entering an alternate reality. I hadn’t had a whole lot of access to that world, but now — I’d click a button and my blood would be boiling.”

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