The Leftovers

  • Tom Perrotta
  • St. Martin's Press
  • 368 pp.
  • September 9, 2011

Life after the Rapture, as told by a serio-comic chronicler of middle-aged, suburban America.

Reviewed by Gerry Hogan

Not two months ago, I said to a friend and fellow fan that we were about due for a new novel by Tom Perrotta. It was nearly four years since the appearance of The Abstinence Teacher, his fifth serio-comic take on middle-class, middle-aged, suburban America —  which is to say, on me — and I was needing Perrotta to shed more light on my life and times.

So, imagine my surprise when I tore open the envelope, expecting a book grounded in The Vividly Real, in the tumultuous politics, societal rifts and personal anxieties of the American here-and-now, only to read a book jacket that began, “October 14th, The Sudden Departure: Millions of people were plucked from the Earth and millions left behind.”

Very quickly on, it becomes clear that despite the “Sudden Departure,” The Leftovers is not a religious book, at least not in the conventional sense. The story begins after the millions have departed, and Perrotta remains agnostic as to the cause or the purpose. Some of his characters believe this was The Rapture of the Bible, while others vigorously deny it:

“Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who’d disappeared on October 14th ― Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were — hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing The Rapture couldn’t be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and to put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.”

Instead of theology, Perrotta is concerned with the ways in which people react to the cataclysm, the strategies they employ and the pathologies they fall into by way of trying to make sense of the terrible loss. Four of his five principal characters belong to the Garvey family ― father Kevin, mother Laurie, daughter Jill and son Tom ― and each member of this archetypal suburban brood responds in a radically different way. Kevin runs for mayor of their town of Mapleton, doubling down on routine and rationality. Laurie leaves home to join The Guilty Remnant, a group that instructs its members to turn their backs on family and all vestiges of their old life, take a vow of silence and commit acts of passive and not-so-passive aggression while awaiting God’s final judgment. Jill, formerly a model student, turns to sex and drugs. Tom drops out of college and follows a UPS-driver-turned-messiah, named Holy Wayne.

In short, alternating sections, Perrotta focuses on each of the Garveys, as well as on Nora Durst, an attractive woman nearing 40, who has lost her husband and both of her kids in the Departure, to tell the story of the unmoored life in Mapleton, U.S.A., after this event, which is to say, after the old rules stop making sense.

While Perrotta’s novels are topically disparate, in each there is an obvious fondness for his characters; he bestows at least some dignity on all of his imperfect people. This is not to say that he withholds judgment, that he is a runaway moral relativist, for he makes plain that there is such a thing as bad behavior and that there are and must be consequences. But unlike many of Perrotta’s serio-comic peers — Jonathan Franzen comes to mind — there is nothing snide or harshly ironic about the way in which he frames his characters’ predicaments. There is, always, a tacit recognition of the accidents of nature and nurture, the vagaries of fate.

What truly distinguishes Perrotta’s writing is the charmingly gentle way he extracts humor from the everyday, from our seemingly bland and ordinary middle-American reality. Normally, he does no — need not — sacrifice solid plotting or credible character development in the pursuit of wisdom and comedy. His charm flows from a clear familiarity with a given situation.

However, in The Leftovers it is not always so clear that Perrotta is firmly rooted in a familiar place. Who would, after all, really know how people might react in the wake of the Apocalypse? And while he deserves points for this flight of imagination, and though the writing is characteristically smart, there were many times when I found myself disturbed by his characters’ actions or inactions, when I just plain doubted their motivations. We are told that Laurie Garvey, our first point of view, is a woman who “hadn’t been raised to believe in much of anything, except the foolishness of belief itself” and that she has always been devoted to her family. Yet by the end of the prologue, she has already turned her back on that family and joined The Guilty Remnant. Later in the book, she behaves with shocking indifference to husband and kids, does things that violate basic standards of human conduct.

Because Perrotta has not given us the opportunity to see Laurie prior to the Departure, to come to know her or any of these characters before all bets were off, I struggled to understand why she acted in this manner. And though there are moments of complex feeling in each of these storylines, ultimately, Nora Durst and all of the Garveys seemed more textbook reactions to traumatic loss than fully rounded characters.

Despite these complaints, it is my hope that The Leftovers will expose Perrotta to a yet wider audience; given the end-of-the-world element, I’d bet the house that this book outsells his previous novels.

Gerry Hogan lives in Columbia, Maryland, and is a prosecutor for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

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