Reviewed in this essay:
Four years after The Abstinence Teacher, and seven years after the massive success of Little Children, Tom Perrotta is back with The Leftovers, a novel that manages to strike just the right balance between complete absurdity and dozy normality in his depiction of North American suburban life.
The Leftovers continues Perrotta’s explorations of marriage and infidelity, child and teen rearing, college life, sex, and America’s relationship with all brands of Christianity – only this time he hits his readers with a science fiction-esque bombshell of apocalyptic proportions: the Rapture. Perhaps not the Rapture in the biblical sense, but an event that comes to be known as the Sudden Departure, in which thousands upon thousands of people from around the globe have simply up and vanished. What is more, the victims seem to have disappeared indiscriminately, regardless of age, race, religion, or political stripe. Perrotta even includes a list of missing celebrities, among the more humorous of which are Jennifer Lopez, Adam Sandler, Vladimir Putin, and the Pope.
The majority of the plot centres around one family, the Garveys, in the months and years following the Sudden Departure in an east-coast town called Mapleton. Kevin, the easy-going patriarch, lives at home with his daughter, Jill, a former straight-A student who has taken up a life of punky rebellion by shaving her head and engaging in sex parties with her disillusioned peers. Kevin’s son, Tom, drops out of college and joins a cult known as the Healing Hug Movement led by a wacko ‘prophet’ named Holy Wayne. Finally there’s Laurie, Kevin’s formerly doting wife, who leaves home to join a more ominous cult called the Guilty Remnant – a clan of white-robed wraiths who have taken a strict vow of silence and constantly smoke cigarettes, an act of self-mortification that is meant as a reminder of the depravity and unworthiness of those who were left behind.
Perrotta’s clever imagining of the various groups, cults, and healers who spring up after such a mystifying event is one of the novel’s more enjoyable, if somewhat frightening, elements. Holy Wayne, for example, believes he has the power to absorb other people’s sorrow with his magical hugs, but as his popularity soars, so does his penchant for hugging virginal teenage girls, and before long the Healing Hug Movement has transformed into a cult of personality run by a Polygamist pervert. The Guilty Remnant, on the other hand, is a far more sinister creation: a band of tortured souls plagued by shame who stalk the citizens of Mapleton in the streets like ghosts, trailing smoke and attempting to stare straight into their eyes, even if it means being spat on or assaulted. The plot takes a dark turn when one of the members of the G.R. is found murdered.
Perrotta conjures up a number of other minor reactionaries and post-Rapture cults, such as the Reverend Matt Jamison, a militant proponent of Rapture Denial, and a group called the Barefoot People, who have reverted to living a drugged-out hippie lifestyle, but one of the most engaging things about The Leftovers is how many of the characters are able to carry on with their normal lives in the wake of inexplicable disaster. Kevin seeks a “normal relationship” with Nora Durst, a woman of who lost her entire family in the Sudden Departure, Jill grapples with teen angst as she attempts to fit in with a new crowd at school, and Tom falls in love with a cute teenager named Christine, one of Holy Wayne’s unfortunate brides. At one point in the novel, Kevin remarks, “It didn’t matter what happened in the world – genocidal wars, natural disasters, unspeakable crimes, mass disappearances, whatever – eventually people got tired of brooding about it. Time moved on, seasons changed, individuals withdrew to their private lives”. This, I think, is something worth taking from The Leftovers: the notion that no matter the absurdities the world throws one’s way, all it takes is the mere passage of time for so-called normality to slump back into view.