Difficult people

By JAMES PARKER  |  October 3, 2007

Perrotta is, of course, not an ideologue. He’s a writer, which means that he’s into complication, relativity, and spilled milk. “Fiction does what it does — someone with a real agenda in the culture wars is not going to write a novel, you know?” Mouse in hand, he began to poke into the topsy-turvy world of the evangelical Christian, with its judgmental thunders and its permanently extended offer of wild, supernatural forgiveness. Raised Catholic in New Jersey, among people who “put in their one hour a week at church and are very comfortable with a certain level of hypocrisy,” he found it all rather fascinating. “I learned pretty quick — and this is the great lesson for a fiction writer — that there’s not one Christian. There’s millions of Christians. And they believe different things and they hold themselves to different standards. One of the crucial things about the research was learning enough to be free, so I don’t have to fix some Christian type — I can create a character as individual as any other character.”

A ghost of satire
Because his protagonists live and move and have their being in what writer James Howard Kunstler has called “the tragic crapscape” of sprawl America, and because of a certain pitiless observational clarity in his style, Perrotta has been called a satirist. The helpful contrast here is with his friend George Saunders, whom Perrotta considers “a genius.” Geographically, the territories of the two writers overlap: malls, industrial parks, aviation-themed restaurants, and businesses called Prostho-Tek (“World’s Largest Supplier of Quality Artificial Limbs”). “At Sea Oak,” writes Saunders in his story “Sea Oak,” “there’s no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx.”

The difference is that Saunders, wearing his writerly rocket-boots of satire, lifts off immediately into the vertical dimension — absurdity, emptiness — while Perrotta pursues the horizontal, keeping his characters company as they bumble disgracefully and humanly along. In creative terms, it’s an act of friendship, and I put it to him that he is too generous, too mammalian for satire. “You might be right,” he says with a grin. “The thing that maybe separates me from somebody who knows that from the beginning is that it takes me a while to figure it out! I feel like there’s always a ghost of satire in each book. Maybe my first impulse is to be satirical, but then, as I get to know the character, that sort of falls away. I want to attack, and then something happens.”

The saving of Pastor Dennis in The Abstinence Teacher is a case in point. Dennis leads an evangelical church called The Tabernacle, and is the guiding force behind Tim Mason, the ex-addict soccer coach whose attempts at team prayer so enrage Ruth. He used to work at Best Buy, until one busy Thursday night “he crouched down below the Computer Information desk to get a manual for a Handheld Organizer” and found instead a Bible: “The book was glowing like a beacon, pulsing with energy, calling out to him.” Dennis is immediately endowed with the gift of tongues, and emerges raving from behind the counter. Then, like Jesus in the temple, he gets to work. Printers, home-theater components, and knockoff mp3 players all shatter before his wrath, which climaxes in front of “a three-thousand-dollar sixty-one-inch wide-screen flat-panel plasma TV that was playing Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” Shouting “Whore!” and “Abomination!” Dennis puts a boom box through it. “Screams of protest and cheers of approval mingled as Dennis fell to his knees and called out to God.”

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