The PFG Book Club: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

It's the end of the world. How do you feel?

After reading Tom Perrotta’s “Little Children,” a couple of years back, I promptly threw a Staff Pick sticker on it and probably hand sold 20 copies of it over the next six months [you owe me a beer, Perrotta].  I have yet to read the book that came after it [The Abstinence Teacher], but his most recent offering shot to the top of my queue based on the uniqueness of its premise.  Well, unique for him anyway.

On October 14, three years before the events of the novel, millions of people disappear from the face of the earth. Poof! Gone. No explanation, they just…aren’t there anymore.  The media calls it the Sudden Departure. Perrotta has always been a writer concerned with how people relate to each other. In The Leftovers, he zeroes in on the residents of Mapleton, a small American city, specifically  the Garvey family.  All of the Garveys react to the disappearances in a different way: son Tom vanishes after dropping out of college and falling in with a self-styled spiritual healer named Holy Wayne; mother Laurie abandons her family and joins the Guilty Remnant, a cult whose members take a vow of silence and wander the streets in all white robes, smoking cigarettes and surveying the other citizens of Mapleton to make sure they never forget the Sudden Departure, and remember it could just as easily happen again.  Father [and Mapleton mayor] Kevin and daughter Jill are left behind, pun intended, to try to figure out how to live in a world where people can disappear on you just as easily when they’re still on the planet.

Perrotta’s strength has always lied with his gift for character.  Even bit players who wander the streets of Mapleton pop off the page, like the Evangelical Minister who can’t believe he wasn’t among the departed after devoting his life to God.  He wanders the streets of Mapleton distributing a tabloid newsletter disparaging the reputations of the missing as adulterers or thieves. And it always feels real, it always makes perfect sense that these people would react that way.  As a reader, you understand why Laurie would walk out on her family to join the Guilty Remnant, you feel how difficult the decision is for her, and empathize with her struggle to reconcile with what the ultimate goals of the group are revealed to be.  If I had one gripe, it’s only that I found Tom’s story to be the weakest narratively.  His road trip across America with one of Holy Wayne’s child brides after his arrest on sex charges is well written, but serves more as a plot lever to get pulled so other things can happen to more interesting characters.

This is no Cormac McCarthy-esque apocalypse, no rotisserie babies here. In his version of the apocalypse, society doesn’t collapse, even if people do.  Perrotta’s one of the soundest craftsmen I’ve ever read [a long-held belief], his sentences flow with such a restrained, natural ease, he never feels the need to intentionally wow a reader. Yet then you come across one of his similes or metaphors that reveal just how good he is.

I’m making a big deal out of this book because I’m afraid it’ll dip under the radar if I don’t. The publishing publicity machine can be such a cyclone of teen dystopia and pop poli-sci that when a book comes out that’s just a great, solidly written, thoughtful and entertaining novel comes out, it can totally be lost in the noise.  Two months, it’s shuffled off the new release tables in the bookstores never to be seen again.  With word that HBO’s developing The Leftovers as a series, that seems less likely, but I still  plan on fighting for this book with everyone I speak to. It’s just that good.  Read it now so you can brag when the show hits.

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