Perrotta's flawed sci-fi about a Rapture-like event explores the paths of grief after random loss
We saved the date. But May 21, 2011 passed without fire or brimstone, and no frogs rained down from the skies. Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicted the Rapture would take place that day, and spent millions of dollars spreading the word; but all we ended up getting were a few weeks of deadly apocalypse jokes.
Still, it seems our culture is currently obsessed with all things End Times, which explains why Camping was able to capture the national eye. Beneath our ridicule was a germ of real anxiety, a little Nostradamus within our collective Rodney Dangerfield. We’re steeped in apocalyptic books, movies, and TV shows, with zombies staging a major comeback as the harbingers of doom du jour. As we arrived at the brink of bankruptcy earlier this month, it was hard not to detect a whiff of The Judgment in our midst.
In his provocative new novel, “The Leftovers,’’ Tom Perrotta dives straight into our unease. The book is a something of a departure for Perrotta, who is best known for social satire (“The Abstinence Teacher’’) and the mapping out of emotional conflict (“Little Children’’). “The Leftovers’’ represents his go at science fiction, as he invents a Rapture-like event in order to explore the fallout on the survivors - specifically the family of Kevin Garvey, the mayor of Mapleton. But it’s a gentle, Perrotta-esque go at sci-fi, without any mangled bodies or bombed-out buildings; it’s a realistic novel built on a supernatural foundation. Perrotta’s homeland, affluent, generic American suburbia, remains physically intact in “The Leftovers,’’ if not emotionally.
The novel takes up with the Garvey family three years after the event, which has become known as the Sudden Departure. On Oct. 14, millions of people disappeared from Earth. There was no clear reason why some vanished and others didn’t; the Sudden Departure appeared to strike a wildly random selection of religions and ages, sinners and sinned upon. Some families lost many; others lost none. No algorithm emerged, although many survivors - the leftovers of the title - still struggle to find one.
Like Sept. 11, 2001, the Departure changes the world irrevocably. Even those like the Garveys, who lost no one during the event, have been thrown. The possibility that more people could perish dangles over their heads, and mass sorrow, anger, fear, and denial remain palpable. Some have reacted with renewed appreciation for life, while others have fallen into despair or turned their backs on morality now that they believe their behavior so starkly bears no relationship to their fates.
And many, like Laurie Garvey, Kevin’s wife, have begun to lean on religion. An agnostic for most of her life, Laurie is now among those survivors who believe that the Departure was indeed the Rapture: “God’s intrusion into her life couldn’t have been any clearer if He’d addressed her from a burning azalea.’’ Laurie leaves Kevin and their two children and drops out of society to take refuge with a religious cult called the Guilty Remnant. These somber people have taken a vow of silence and are required to chain smoke while they quietly haunt citizens to remind them of God’s ultimate power. Depressed and self-abnegating, Laurie and her fellow martyrs are slowly killing themselves as they wander around Mapleton, staring people down.
Perrotta creates other subculture movements like the Guilty Remnant, all of which have arisen in response to the great mystery of Oct. 14. College-aged Tom Garvey has fallen into a very different kind of cult from his mother, led by “Holy Wayne’’ Gilchrest. After losing his son to the Departure, Gilchrest begins selling himself as a mystic who can soak up others’ pain with his hugs. Now the leader of the Healing Hug movement, he has become a demagogue, and Tom has become one of his errand boys. While Laurie lurks in Mapleton, catching glimpses of her husband, Tom travels across the country, secretly transporting Gilchrest’s pregnant girlfriend. Only Kevin and teen daughter Jill remain in the Garvey’s Mapleton home, with Jill beginning to fall in with bad influences in her high school class.
Kevin walks through all this upheaval with a mild sense of denial. His optimism is both appealing and frustrating; you want him to kick and scream at least a little as he emotionally loses his wife, son, and daughter. Instead, he focuses on jump-starting his life with unlikely women, including Nora, who lost her entire family in the Departure. Just as Mapleton is an average town - even the name is aggressively ordinary - Kevin is an average guy who just seems to be gliding through his life, come what may.
The plot of “The Leftovers’’ is a little unformed, as the Garveys reposition themselves in the post-Departure world. The critical action - the climax, to some extent - occurred before the novel begins, so the narrative occasionally feels static in its wake. At the same time, what I like about “The Leftovers’’ - which Perrotta is adapting as a series for HBO - is that it never comes off as just another drastic apocalyptic vision. Nor does it have the biblical and Christian impetus of the “Left Behind’’ novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. His larger, more challenging goal is to leave the Sudden Departure ambiguous, to let us all contemplate the specter of loss. Perrotta’s tone is plainspoken, elegiac, and universal, not incendiary.
Indeed, despite the sci-fi premise, the universality of “The Leftovers’’ took me by surprise. Random loss coupled with the anguished people left in its wake - that’s life, right? In “The Leftovers,’’ the Sudden Departure and its consequences plays out as a metaphor for the human reality, which is that sudden departures are everyday occurrences. They happen against our will, leaving some to crumble into narcissism or fear like Laurie and others to blindly move forward like Kevin. All of us, while we are still here, are leftovers - at least until Oct. 21, 2011, the date on which Camping has rescheduled his furious cataclysm.
Matthew Gilbert is the Globe’s TV critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.