Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta

How would the people left behind respond if a Rapture-like event occurred? That is the question Tom Perrotta takes on in The Leftovers, which follows the effects of the "Sudden Departure" (the event is not considered by most to be the Rapture because it did not exclusively sweep up Christians or even believers) on the people of a suburb with the idyllic name of Mapleton.

Perrotta makes an interesting choice in focusing primarily on the Garvey family, all of whose members survived the Sudden Departure. One might surmise that their survival intact would mean the effects on them were less severe--but such is not the case. Mother Laurie, after spending months commiserating with a friend whose daughter was taken in the event, joins a cult called the Guilty Remnant. Its members dress in white, smoke constantly, follow people around town as they go about their daily activities, and do not speak--their motto is "Stop Wasting Your Breath." Son Tom, a college student, also falls into one of the many cults that spring up after the event, the Healing Hug Movement headed by Holy Wayne, whose pregnant teenage "wife" Tom ends up taking on a cross-country trip after Holy Wayne's arrest.

Daughter Jill and father Kevin, meanwhile, are struggling to maintain a normal life in the family home--and it is their struggles that provide the novel's emotional core. Kevin becomes involved with Nora, a woman whose husband and two children were both taken in the Sudden Departure. Nora is dealing with the range of profound emotions one would expect in such a situation and none of her coping strategies have proven particularly successful--including her decision to become involved with Kevin. Jill and her friend Aimee, who is crashing at the Garveys' house, are involved in group sex games, drinking, and skipping school--a fact that the dazed Kevin (who is also the mayor of Mapleton) is aware of but can't seem to cope with.

Perrotta's customary satirical humor and rather dark view of humanity are certainly on display, particularly in his depiction of the cults (not to mention Reverend Matt, who is so incensed that he was not taken in the Rapture--"I should have been first"--that he devotes his life to uncovering the sins of those who disappeared). But I found The Leftovers to be more compassionate than his earlier works (namely Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher). While Kevin, Jill, and Nora have their flaws, we empathize with them and hope that they will be able to remember "what it feels like to be happy."

Favorite passage:
The Garvey clan was like the old Soviet Union, a once mighty power that had dissolved into a bunch of weak and cranky units.

This must be Kyrgyzstan, he thought.

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