Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Leftovers: The Rapture Is Real! (...kind of)

The standard "disappearance" novel usually goes something like this: A guy says he's going out for a pack of cigarettes. And he never comes back. His family, then, is forced to confront the emotional pain of his disappearance/abandonment.

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta, also explores the idea of dealing with emotional pain when loved ones suddenly disappear. But in this novel, the loved ones disappear in a rather different way. Perrotta concocts a Rapture-like event called the Sudden Departure, in which people quite literally disappear, seemingly at random. One second they're eating dinner or riding their bikes or piloting airplanes. The next, they're gone. And there's no discernible reason why and no recognizable pattern of disappearance — those Raptured aren't just Sanctimonious Evangelical Christians.

And so this narrative trick gives Perrotta a new and inventive way to explore how those who are left behind must move on with their lives. Some join cults or follow crazy but charismatic prophets, thus disappearing from their families in a different way. Some try to prove that the ones who were taken actually were bad people  — that way, those who are still on Earth can talk themselves into the fact that the Sudden Departure was not actually the prophesied Rapture of religious lore. But the majority of people do their best simply to try to go on with life as it used to be.

That last category includes Kevin Garvey. Kevin is the mayor of the small suburban town of Mapleton. As the novel begins — three years after the Sudden Departure — Kevin's wife Laurie has abandoned the family to take up with a group that calls themselves the Guilty Remnant. Kevin and Laurie's son Tom has quit college, and begun following a nutjob named Holy Wayne. That leaves daughter Jill, an increasingly precocious teenager, who drinks and does drugs and has casual sex — but at least she's still there.

The story chronicles six months in these characters' lives, showing how individual decisions to "disappear" from one's family can be just as sad and with just as many emotional consequences (perhaps more!) than if disappearance was sudden and unexplained.

Perrotta writes a smooth, easy-to-read story — a modern parable, if you will. It's 90 percent great, and then 10 percent poor near the end, so I'm giving it four stars. But if you like modern, hip writing and an inventive story, The Leftovers is definitely for you.


  1. Neeed to read this. In fact, I need to read this AND all the other Perrotta novels gathering dust on my shelves. And you're reading Zone One! I hope it doesn't suck. :D

  2. I really want to read this one. I have only read two of Perrotta's novels but I hope to read more of them in the near future.

  3. I like this sudden interest writers are taking into doomsday prophecies. Most likely I'll pick that one up. Great review.

  4. There was a lot of talk about this book right around it's publication, but I never actually knew what it was about. It sounds much more accessible than I believed it to be.

  5. Bummer that the ending's kind of lame. I hate it when books are great until the end. Makes me feel like I've wasted time. :)

  6. I started reading this (and actually Zone One), but sort of just stopped. I was going through a bit of a reading slump and only finished things that I felt like I had to, but I was enjoying the beginning of this. I think four stars is a reason to go back. I look forward to what you think of Zone One.

  7. @Andi - It's only the second Perrotta novel I've read, and only the first one I've liked. The Abstinence Teacher was blah. But he has a lot of loyal fans who loved his other novels, and I loved the movie Little Children (based on his novel).

    @reviewsbylola - Which have you read? I liked this one enough to go back and try a few in his back catalog.

    @Ben - Yeah, it's funny how many "literary" novelists are taking on subjects that would once have been considered "beneath" them.

    @Brenna - Yeah, it was definitely a late-summer buzzworthy book. It's about as accessible as you can get - really light, fast reading.

    @couchpotato - I'm not sure I feel like I wasted my time - I just feel like I should forget all the parts after where it started sucking, and only remember how much I remember the first 95 percent. ;)

    @LBC - Zone One is a really different book than this one, style-wise. But they both have their strengths...and weaknesses. Not completely sure what I even think about Zone One (I'm at the halfway point) yet...

  8. I just posted my review of the audioversion of The Leftovers today. I also liked it but it was just short of 5 stars for me also.

  9. I love Tom Perotta. He is one of those writers who just seems to be that smidgen ahead of the zeitgeist. I am pleased you enjoyed this, Greg, because I was concerned that The author was maybe reaching a little too left of centre for me to find the book enjoyable. But there is enough of the absurd rubbing up against normal life for me to read want to pick it up. You've tipped me over. Again.

  10. In short, I loved this book!