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.

A Few Thoughts About This and That

Commitments both personal and professional [not least of which: forgetting all about it], meant I completely screwed the pooch on this year’s Bookcamp Toronto, another of those  newfangled unconferences you kids think are all the rage.  Not surprisingly, especially in the wake of the Kobo’s launch, much of the discussion, in facet or another, circled around publishing’s newest Jesus, the eReader.

Now, it’s hard for me to really form an opinion on what was said, since I wasn’t there and am  only now starting to sift through the numerous blog posts discussing the event.  But I can see what people are saying and filter it through my experience as a guy who deals with book consumers on a daily basis.  Because I feel like that’s the thing that publishing has always gotten wrong, but is really gotten wrong in the past 5 years or so:  looking at the middleman [bookstores] as their primary customer.


Tools of the Trade

Always a pile. Always.

If you’re like me, friends, the only thing you like more than writing is reading about writing.  In fact, sometimes that’s actually preferable: you can feel connected to your art without actually facing the horror of trying to create some.  Since I started working in book retail, I’ve read and purchased dozens of books on writing craft, and my product knowledge on the genre is actually one of my lesser known gifts ar work. As the folks over at Flashlight Reviews  have recently corralled what they consider the best books on writing, I thought I would share five of my own. Since I only recognize two on that list and have read none.

Thing is, there’s two approaches to a book on writing craft: a nuts and bolts how-to, filled with practical points and techniques to remember; and a more touchy feely, granola, dirty hippy, ‘get in touch with your artist’s spirit’ type of book. They both have their place, and I’ll be recommending titles from both styles, but in the interest of full disclosure you should know I have a strong preference for the former variety.  Shall we?


I Got You Stuck Off the Realness

Ceci n'est pas un livre.

“Is it possible that contemporary literary prizes are exactly like the federal bailout package, subsidizing work that is no longer remotely describing reality?”

–David Shields, “Reality Hunger”

Yowch. There’s a lot to yowch about in Shields’ [“The Thing About Life is One Day You’ll be Dead“] latest. Reality Hunger calls itself a manifesto on the cover, but if anything it’s a printed mixtape. An argument presented in over 600 numbered snippets, none more than a page or two in length, some Shields wrote, some lifted from a variety of sources across a number of disciplines. The only way of distinguishing which is which is a poorly [by design] assembled appendix at the back of the book, an appendix Shields urges the reader not to consult. Because knowing who said what defeats the purpose of the book and what Shields is trying to accomplish. He wants to blend not only genre, but form. (more…)

Always late to the party: DFW’s ‘This is Water’

What the hell is water?

What the hell is water?

For all my young and angry girls with your beautiful faces and stern agendas.

I mentioned on Twitter earlier today that I had managed to steal enough moments at work today to read David Foster Wallace’s ‘This is Water‘ in its entirety. The book is a transcription of a commencement speech Wallace gave in 2005 at Kenyon College in Ohio. It was the only such appearance he ever made.

Of course some industrious soul transcribed it from a video and it made its way around the internet, but the folks I correspond with apparently have little use for WASPy novelists with depression problems, so I hadn’t encountered it until now.

I don’t know if I would go as far as to call myself a fan of Wallace. I have not, nor will I ever read ‘Infinite Jest‘, and got so frustrated by endless meandering in the title essay of his collection ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again‘, I tossed the book back on the shelf in irritation.

Yet I’m consistently blown away by his short stories. ‘Incarnations of Burned Children’ are the most startling and heartbreaking three pages I’ve ever read. And I was more disheartened by his suicide than I was expecting, devouring every lengthy article I could find on his career and body of work, so I was fascinated to see what this man might have told a group of college graduates as they prepared to make their way into the world.