"The Leftovers" redifines religious issues

By Carolyn Williams

Staff Writer

Tom Perrotta’s latest novel “The Leftovers” has been called his most ambitious work to date, beating out the popular successes “Election” and “Little Children,” both of which spawned successful film adaptations. “The Leftovers,” however, deals with a subject material quite unlike illicit high school love affairs or stories of infidelity and marital boredom.

The plot of the novel takes place primarily in suburban Mapleton (basically Hometown, USA). Our main players are the Garvey family, who have been left physically intact after the events of October 14, though their emotional health is less certain. Three years before the novel begins, the “Sudden Departure” took place, a mysterious disappearance of seemingly randomly selected individuals worldwide. Though this occurrence looks an awful lot like the prophesied Rapture of biblical fame, the event causes a panic among people of all denominations, because there seems to be no rhyme or reason to who made the cut and who got left behind. While some deny that this “Rapture” was the real deal, others take drastic measures to prepare themselves for their second chance at any cost.

Perrotta steers clear of religion for the most part, though, using the Rapture idea as inspiration only, instead dealing more with the individual reactions and coping mechanisms of those who were left behind to pick up the pieces of a bewildered world. Kevin, the Garvey family’s patriarch, takes on the position of Mapleton’s mayor in hopes of restoring some optimism to the still unsettled community. His wife Laurie goes the other way, though. Deciding she cannot return to “normal” life, she joins the radical faction the Guilty Remnant. There she takes a vow of silence, moves into a commune, dresses only in white and stalks her former friends and family members around Mapleton, a constant reminder of what everyone is so desperate to forget.

Their two children are similarly adrift. Once a conscientious, shy student, 17-year-old Jill has shaved her head for fun and taken to coming to school high and bumming around with the local “bad” kids, but touchingly prepares a Christmas gift for the mother who abandoned her, and worries about her dramatically slipping grades. Tom, who dropped out of college after the Sudden Departure to follow the cult leader Holy Wayne, has finally, after three years, come to realize with Wayne’s arrest that following a “savior” will not solve his problems, nor will it help him find his footing in this new world.

Perrotta hasn’t been called the “Steinbeck of the suburbs” for nothing, and, as always, his writing about this subset of upper-middleclass American life is dead on, losing none of its reality even in such an unusual situation as faces the citizens of Mapleton. Though perhaps not as gripping as the desperate, slightly twisted, “Little Children,” “The Leftovers” is still an excellent read, and a very solid sixth novel from Perrotta.

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