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Voice in Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher

By Rea Keech

Perrotta’s novel has a witty, ironic, detached tone. The author seems to be above it all, looking with amusement at the world around him. Here are some phrases and sentences that typify this attitude.

Sometimes it’s a character who speaks with this tone:

  • Randall [a gay friend of Ruth]: “You never know when opportunity will knock,” he reminded her. “And when it does, you don’t want to answer the door in a ratty old bathrobe.” (5)
  • “Yeah,” C.J. said …. “You get treated real nice here [in the re-education program]. Just stay away from the Kool-Aid.”

More often it’s the point-of-view character who is laughing at what is being described:

  • [What name to go by after marriage] provided another lode of thorny new issues to fret about. (6)

(We presume it’s the character Ruth being snarky or ironic about her friend Donna’s tendency to fret about things.)

  • … in the jaunty tone he trotted out for awkward situations. (8)

(Ruth again showing her attitude, here towards the school superintendent.)

  • … hunched in his usual bowlegged wrestler’s crouch, as if he were looking for someone to take down. (11)

(Ruth’s impression of the superintendent.)

  • He was a slovenly guy in a cheap suit, the kind of attorney you sometimes saw on TV, blinking frantically, trying to explain why he’d fallen asleep during his client’s murder trial. (14-15)

(Ruth’s impression.)

  • [At the mention of oral sex] Farmer looked like he’d been jabbed with a pin. (15)

(Ruth’s impression.)

  • … interrupted by a chorus of boos from the Tabernacle contingent. (17)

(Ruth’s attitude towards members of the Tabernacle.)

  • … most of [the kids in Ruth’s neighborhood] would readily admit that they were a lot more focused on getting into a good college than the Kingdom of Heaven. (17)

(Ruth’s attitude towards teaching sexual abstinence.)

  • Randal smiled the way people do when they’re hurt and trying not to show it. (30)

(Ruth’s observation.)

  • … Dan’s hands were roaming freely up and down the length of her back, making occasional forays into the northern precincts of the butt region ….(156)

(Ruth’s way of describing/remembering a student abstinence skit.)

  • Ruth … pretended to be unperturbed by an elderly woman three seats away who appeared to be on the verge of coughing up a hairball. (167)

(Ruth’s observation.)

  • … Joe Venuti popped out of his office and planted himself directly in her path. He looked the way he always did in the morning, like he’d been up half the night sweating on the toilet. (195)

(Ruth describing/remembering her principal.)

  • Eliza apparently had a different opinion about the Savior’s fashion preferences …. (271)

(Ruth’s observation of how her daughter dresses for church.)

  • Grace smiled back, her mouth busy with orthodontia. (273-4)

(Ruth describing/remembering her daughter’s friend.)

The snarky observations are usually in Ruth’s mind, but sometimes they are in Tim’s:

  • Too-frequent Botox treatments had left her with a single expression, an all-purpose grimace of unpleasant surprise. (107)

(Tim’s observation.)

  • Tim couldn’t figure it: wars, elections, and natural disasters barely made a blip on his wife’s radar screen, but if someone killed a family member, or a pretty teenager went missing on a tropical island, she was all over the case like Encyclopedia Brown, spending hours listening to windbag legal experts split hairs about a defense motion to limit discovery, or the significance of the fact that authorities were still calling the husband a “person of interest” rather than a “suspect.” (199)

(Tim’s observation.)

  • Mitchell’s home office was smaller and funkier that Tim would have expected, with an old, clunky-looking PC hulking on a beige metal desk suitable for crawling under during a nuclear war.” (280)

(Tim’s observation of his ex-wife’s new husband’s office.)

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s the point-of-view character or the author himself who is laughing at what is being described.

  • Donna and her husband had “gotten engaged after two magical dates.” (5)

(The phrase is obviously mocking the language that internet dating sites and their clientele and glamor magazines might use. The technique is the deadpan insertion of their language without quotes.)

But is it Ruth who is using the deadpan humor here, or is it the author? Here’s another example:

  • [With a hangover Ruth stands up] more quickly than was advisable. (355)

Advice comes from the outside, not inside. The comment seems more the author’s than Ruth’s. Yet we’re in Ruth’s head. Are we to understand that she ignores her immediate pain and makes a witty understatement about it, as if it happened to somebody else?

To tell the truth, it’s as though Perrotta sneaks his own authorial observations into the heads of his point-of-view characters, convincingly in most cases. His main characters are given his own ability to take a distanced, ironic look at themselves. This creates the overall tone of an author who mainly finds life and the people in it amusing. It’s an authorial voice that I enjoy.