Remember last spring when everyone was having a lot of fun at Harold Camping’s expense for predicting The Rapture? He was utterly sure that he and his followers were going to be assumed into heaven.
I was thinking of Camping and his ilk when I started reading The Leftovers by Tom Perotta. The Leftovers takes place in a suburban community a few years after a Rapture-like event has occurred. Rapture-like, I say? Yes. In the Sudden Departure, millions of people the world over disappeared in a blink. The –“like” comes from the observation that those who disappeared were from all sorts of belief systems (or lack thereof) and lifestyles. Needless to say, those that considered themselves on the inside track to Rapturation were dismayed, and convince themselves that this wasn’t a real Rapture, but something else. Now, Perotta excels best at skewering the small-mindedness of suburban America and the hubris of religious extremism, and so as I began I was excited for a wonderfully snarky takedown of fanatical right-wing Christianity.
The Leftovers is not that. I mean that’s in there, but the novel is considerably more subtle than a mere harangue against the Holier-Than-Thou set (which is what I think his novel The Abstinence Teacher was). Perotta focuses his narrative on the Garvey family in the fictional everytown Mapleton. No one in the Garvey family Departed, but town mayor and father Kevin is losing his family just the same. His son drops out of college and gets suckered into a cult, and his teenage daughter stops working hard in school and begins hanging out with a “bad crowd”. His wife becomes involved in another new organization – The Guilty Remnant – who convinced that the Departure really was the Rapture and have taken on the mission of not letting those left behind to be caught napping again. Meanwhile, Kevin’s trying to just keep it all together – to varying degrees of success.
The constant backdrop is one that while daily life has re-asserted itself, the Departure has shaken the roots of society and many of its institutions – political parties, religious organizations – have been sapped of their authority by their inability to explain what happened and whether could it ever happen again. In their place, many begin turning to new and extreme philosophies, like the ones some of the Garveys end up involved with.
Think about the uncertainty you felt after 9/11. Think of what we turned to afterwards – The Patriot Act, war, political extremism, Freedom Fries. Now multiply that by a million. By having things reasonably back on their feet after three years, Perotta may be giving us too much credit.
In the end, The Leftovers weaves its story through this very tricky landscape, but remains a very personal story of loss, love, family and what it means to have free will. I rooted for Kevin and his family in a way I haven’t in Perotta’s other books and their struggles made me reflect on times in my own life. When I finished reading it, I thought, “Really good – 4-stars.” But I have thought about The Leftovers and its fascinating premise and examination of human nature after the fact as much as any book I can think of in recent memory*. It is not a perfect book, but one that shouldn’t be left behind from anyone’s to-read list.
5 stars out of 5
*with perhaps the exception of Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.