Illustration: American Cannibal © Blaine Fontana
WHEN TOM PEROTTA WAS in the third grade, he wrote a short composition from the perspective of the Apollo 13 astronauts. "My essay," he recalled, in an interview for Post Road magazine, "called for optimism and determination in the face of danger." This anecdote, told with a characteristic blend of self-effacement and humor — Perrotta admits, for instance, that he cannot take credit for the Tom Hanks movie to follow 25 years later — speaks to the complicated mix of nostalgia, disillusion, and yearning that seems to mark a particular contemporary brand of American mourning, our mourning for a past that, while imperfect, still offered enough of us a sense of confidence and hope. You know that Perrotta is winking at us about his 8-year-old self — his JFK-style call-to-action, if it weren't a child's, would feel old-fashioned, platitudinous, unearned. But, you also get the sneaking suspicion that Perrotta still believes in that call — or, more precisely, believes in the boy who made it. After all, his novels, for all their mordancy, are, at heart, humanist. As William Blythe pointed out in his New York Times review of Little Children, Perrotta's novels raise the question of "how a writer can be so entertainingly vicious and yet so full of fellow feeling."
Prior to The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta seemed ever ready to puncture his characters, but clearly strove to make sure we liked most of them just enough in the end. In his latest novel, The Leftovers, Perrotta is harder on his characters than ever, and harsher about the world. And yet ultimately the novel is even more humane than its predecessors — with a humanism that extends beyond an understanding of his characters's foibles into something much deeper and messier. He has assembled a cast of distinctly Perrotta-style suburban dwellers and exposed them to a world both dark and inhospitable, a world where they prove themselves helpless, unable to reckon with a future or even the present, unequal to the big sorrows of life, those that strike more powerfully than personal disappointment, rattling marriages, and suburban discontent.
In The Leftovers, Perrotta imagines a world in the aftermath of the "Sudden Departure," a Rapture-like event in which one-third of the population has suddenly disappeared. More specifically, he imagines one suburb called Mapleton in the aftermath of such an event; other than a few references to the national or global response, The Leftovers is a deeply insular story. The majority of the novel takes place three years after the Departure. At the center is the Garvey family: Kevin, the mayor of Mapleton, has been abandoned by his wife, Laurie, and son, Tom — both of whom have joined two of the many cults that sprang up after the Departure. Left behind, he struggles to hold onto his wayward, despairing teenage daughter, Jill.
The suburban beau ideal, Kevin is a self-made businessman, a family man, and a man with a fundamental belief in the value of his town, its traditions, the goodness of its people. He cannot, however, shield himself from the crushing, daily realization that none of this is as it should be. His home is nearly empty, the town is overridden by cults, and scores of once-thriving townspeople are makin...