St. Martin’s 978-031235034
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What if the Rapture occurred, but it was nothing at all like the End-of-Times evangelical Christians—called dispensationalists, if you care—said it would be? What if millions of people suddenly disappeared but there was no discernible rhyme, reason, or pattern? What if way more children, reprobates, animists, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, non-devout Christians, and everyday sinners disappeared than Born-Again fundamentalists? How would the world react? This is the intriguing question novelist Tom Perrotta poses in Leftovers, a book clearly aimed at the smug certainty of Tim LaHaye and Apocalypse-worshipping devotees of his Left Behind novels. (Perrotta also had the good fortune to have this book hit the shelves when Christian radio loose cannon Howard Camping predicted the world would end on May 21, 2011.)
Much like cartoonist Matt Groening (The Simpsons), Perrotta chooses a white-bread suburbia to play out the drama of the post-disappearance world. His Springfield is called Mapleton, a place that feels like one of those fixated on 50s-style family values ‘burbs in the Bible Belt (think Greater Atlanta). As one might expect, what was dubbed the Sudden Departure caused range of responses in Mapleton. The Rev. Matt Jamison is among those men of the cloth who insisted that the event was not The Rapture. His unique proof of that assertion is to become a one-man smut-and-truth exposé squad who reveals the affairs, substance abuse, and general unworthiness of those who vanished, which he duly broadcasts to Mapletonians. Learning that her husband was a philanderer is not helpful to Nora, an attractive young woman who lost her spouse and two children to the Sudden Departure and is so depressed that she spends her days watching the Spongebob Squarepants reruns she once shared with her offspring. Even those families left intact are confused. Perrotta focuses on the Garveys. Paterfamilias Kevin has just been elected mayor of his shocked town, while his wife, Laurie, becomes unglued and joins the Guilty Remnants, one of the many cults that emerged. The Garveys’ son, Tom, is also in a cult—one run by Holy Wayne, a former UPS driver with a harem of young Asian women. Too young … as it turns out. When Wayne is carted off to jail for pedophilia, Tom loses most of his faith, though he accepts the task of ushering one of Wayne’s wives to a safe house as she is alleged to be bearing a son who will be the new messiah. Daughter Jill chooses a live-for-today route; she befriends bad girl Aimee, who moves in with the Garveys about the time Laurie moves out, and assists Jill’s transformation from honor student to angry low-life.
The book is provocative and, as one might expect, has been widely denounced by those who believe in The Rapture. The Guilty Remnants are especially controversial, as their level of fanaticism suggests all manner of unsavory things about those who live beyond reason. The GR—as they refer to themselves—dress in white, take vows of silence, and make it their mission to become worthy of being raptured by shaming the rest of Mapleton. Their presence is generally heralded by their smell; they chain-smoke, a thoroughly modern mortification of the flesh that’s easier to accommodate as cigarettes are more attainable than hair shirts. Many of their mannerisms reminded me of the Ellen Jamesians in John Irving’s The World According to Garp.
Perrotta also dares to ask what would happen if years passed with no more disappearances and no explanation for the ones that did occur. Is it possible to move on? Can, for example, Kevin and Nora ease their individual sorrows in each other’s company? This is the sort of question Kevin Brockmeier raised in a different context in his own The Illumination, though he handled it better than Perrotta. I reveal nothing by telling you that many readers will be unsatisfied by how Perrotta’s novel ends. Don’t let that deter you; Leftovers is the kind of book that sparks spirited and needed debates over the presumptions of faith, public morality, private guilt, and collective healing. Sometimes the book’s ideas outclass its style and plot, but there’s nothing wrong with that. --Rob Weir