Harold Camping mostly inspired ridicule from Americans this spring when he proclaimed the end of the world was set for May 21—and more when he was forced to backtrack after his predicted date. Without so much lead time for evaluation, the unexplained “Rapture-like event” at the heart of Tom Perrotta’s new novel, The Leftovers, inspires its share of jokes, but its examination of the effects of such an unexplained event on a sedate New Jersey town is far more chilling and restrained.
While no members of the Garvey family were taken away in the event referred to as “October 14,” its aftermath tears them from each other anyway. As Kevin Garvey is tapped to run for mayor of Mapleton, his wife Laurie joins a local cult called the Guilty Remnant in committing silent protests in all-white robes to warn that the Biblical end of the world is close at hand. Their son Tom drops out of college to follow a healer calling himself “Holy Wayne” who professes to take survivors’ pain away. Meanwhile, his sister Jill (who lost her best friend), finds that late-night parties suddenly seem more important than 11th grade. Three years after the event, Kevin has become a central figure to the re-establishment of normalcy in Mapleton, but his friends and neighbors, and even his pilgrim wife, still grapple with the causes of the disturbance that snatched a bizarre cross-section of society worldwide, not sparing atheists, young children, or celebrities.
Subtlety is Perrotta’s watchword as he studies and classifies the minute details that make the town of Mapleton so damaged in the weeks after the unexplained event, and its role in the wider search for explanation. He doesn’t neutralize the religious implications of his Rapture-type event, he simply diffuses them throughout the population, so no single explanation for the events of October 14th takes precedence. The event is a source of relief and agony, but it lets the narrative weave around the bright-line issues of faith and religiosity clumsily handled in Perrotta’s last novel, The Abstinence Teacher.
The Garveys’ brushes with the outside world reinforce the community that they lost in the “Sudden Disappearance,” even though their determination alone can’t recreate it. Instead, Perrotta’s characters—most notably the grieving mother and widow in whom Kevin takes an interest—revel in their small acts of defiance at first, then grow gradually unsure of how to live in their new reality, as the story sheds special light on that moment of recognizing that it isn’t all over. Never out-and-out spooky, The Leftovers embodies what might be Camping’s worst fear for America—that it would continue on, albeit haltingly, reconstructing its broken structures. The picture is heartbreaking, but in Perrotta’s able hands, it’s always clear.