Jim Cullen, Review of Tom Perrotta's "The Leftovers" (St. Martins, 2011)
[Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003), among other books. He is also the author of the recently published Kindle Single e-book President Hanks. Cullen blogs at American History Now.]
In the novels of Tom Perrotta, characters repeatedly stumble into the gap between high-minded ideals and far messier realities. Football coaches, high school history teachers, even knowledgeable and determined prospective brides establish standards that others are expected to follow. Perrotta protagonists are less angry than bemused by these (often self-appointed) authority figures, who always prove fallible, and in many cases feel some inclination to follow them. But they find their instinctive skepticism, and the pull of other, also fallible impulses, leads them to (often passive) resistance. They're decent people, though, and over the course of the story resolve internal and external tensions by arriving a point where, in the parlance of contemporary pop psychology, they "own" their decisions.
Perrotta's new novel, The Leftovers, continues this tradition. But at least initially, it feels very different. That's because it's a surprising foray into what could plausibly be called science fiction. The Leftovers offers us a Rapture scenario: a world in which a significant minority of the human population suddenly disappears without warning. The twist is that no one can really make sense of the disaster, which is widely experienced as entirely random. This is especially disturbing to those with religious inclinations; as apocalypses go, this one is deeply disappointing in the utterly inscrutable way in which both wheat and chaff both seem to go and get Left Behind.
This is not Perrotta's first foray into religious subjects. His 2007 novel The Abstinence Teacher focused on a culture clash between liberal secularists and evangelicals over control over a school curriculum. Still, it's considerably more ambitious in trying to realistically imagine an alternative world, and its success in capturing granular facets of reality in the way it plays out in the (presumably New Jersey) suburb of Mapleton is the best thing about it. It's high praise indeed when Stephen King -- whose own gifts as a writer and critic went too long unratified -- gives your novel a ringing endorsement on the cover of the New York Times Book Review.
There will no doubt be readers, prospective and otherwise, who chuckle approvingly at the premise of The Leftovers, which seems to be a satire of religious commitment. In the epistemological vacuum that follows in the wake of what is collectively dubbed the Sudden Departure, a wide array ad-hoc groups form to succor -- and exploit -- the grieving. There's the Guilty Remnant, whose members socialize their resources, wear white sheets, and smoke cigarettes ritualistically. There's the Holy Wayners, whose founder manages to convince his followers that the disappearance of his son will be redeemed by the birth of another by one of a growing cadre of teenage lovers. There are also the Barefoot People, whose Old Testament is essentially Woodstock. Perrotta's sense of humor, which guarantees at least one good belly laugh per novel, is in fine form here.
The narrative core of the novel forms around the four members of the Garvey family -- Laurie, Tom, Jill and Kevin -- which, strictly speaking, survives the Sudden Departure intact. But the lives of all four are upended by it, and it sends them in centrifugal directions. Laurie, much to her own surprise, finds herself joining the Guilty Remnant. Tom, in college at Syracuse at the time, falls in with Holy Wayne himself and ends up caring for the preacher's pregnant bride. For much of the novel, he and the girl are virtually on the lam, masquerading as Barefoot People. Jill, shattered by her mother's abandonment, shaves her head, ceases her A-level work as a high school senior, and falls under the subversive sway of a charismatic classmate. She and her ambiguous new pal live with Kevin, the mayor of Mapleton, who tries to do the impossible by maintaining a sense of normalcy. (One of the more felicitous developments of Perrotta's fiction in recent years is the emergence of flawed, but still admirable, father figures.) Kevin befriends a fifth major character, Nora Durst, whose husband and children did disappear in the Sudden Departure and is emotionally leveled by the catastrophe. One plotline concerns whether she and Kevin will be able to build an emotional bridge to each other and begin their lives anew.
In what could be termed a further experimentation in genre, Perrotta also introduces a murder-mystery subplot. But it feels like a false step, less for aesthetic reasons than ideological ones. One way he keeps a sense of secular self-congratulation in check is his characteristic virtue of distributing sympathy widely. But in the end, it seems, every serious attempt at a spiritual response to the Sudden Departure must be shown as morally bankrupt. That seems like a cheap shot. Actually, far from a resounding refutation of faith, the Sudden Departure's lack of apparent design is in an important sense appropriate: a God whose ways are comprehensible isn't much of a God at all. Secularists tend to see faith as a crutch, which it sometimes is, but as often or not it's a struggle against futility that requires considerable discipline amid doubt. (That's the problem with New Age groups like the Barefoot People: they seem to consider friction, particularly institutional friction, a vice.) We get some sense of authentic struggle with Laurie, which ends up feeling a bit short-circuited. The skullduggery seems unnecessary.
The narrative detour also seems unnecessary because Perrotta does such a good job of bringing each character's journey to a satisfying conclusion by hitting that sweet spot of seeming both unexpected and inevitable at the same time. He really is an immensely talented writer. And a highly cinematic one: it's easy to envision The Leftovers joining Election (1998) and Little Children (2004) as movies, though I keep hoping that someone will make a good one of his wonderful debut collection of connected short stories, Bad Haircut (1994). Six novels later, it's time to stop comparing Perrotta to writers like Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, even Anton Chekov. We've reached the point where we can start referring to other writers to Perrottaesque. The fictional universe he's created is recognizably his -- and ours.
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