21 January 2012

The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta)

Tom Perrotta's sneaky The Leftovers is the February read for Freebird Books' Post-Apocalyptic Book Club--while I never make it down to Red Hook for the meetings, I'm trying this year to keep up on the books. (Yes, I know it's January. But while I Really Really want to read Colson Whitehead's Zone One, I'm like #35 on the list at the library.)

I call it "sneaky" because it is, at heart, the kind of straightforward domestic literary novel I almost never read. Except for the looming sfnal premise that drew me in: three years before the main action takes place, millions of people all over the world just . . . disappeared. It wasn't a proper Rapture at all, as the remaining premillenial Christians point out sourly--heathens, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and all manner of sinners vanished as well as true believers. Perrotta never tries to explain what happened; instead, he simply explores a world that's suffered such a drastic and mysterious loss, both people who are forever changed and those struggling to recreate normalcy in the face of what becomes known as the Sudden Departure.

At the heart of the narrative are the Garveys: Laurie, who has abandoned her husband and children to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose faith includes a vow of silence and constant cigarette smoking; Kevin, mayor of their small suburban town, tentatively starting a relationship with a melancholy woman whose entire family Departed; son Tom, who dropped out of college to follow Holy Wayne, a self-styled prophet with a predilection for teenage Asian girls; and seventeen-year-old Jill, a former A student fallen in with the worst crowd that will have her.

The Leftovers is largely a meditation on grief, what it does to individuals, families, and society. Which isn't to say that it isn't also funny in places, sweet in others. While it's only tangentially a post-apocalyptic novel, it's still a good one, I think in the very realistic-novel sense that would have made me shy away from the book without the improbable hook: the characters are fully, recognizably human, and their attempts to rebuild their lives wholly believable. I feel a little humbled by my liking it: perhaps this genre of "literary fiction" has some gems after all.

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