OCTOBER 11, 2011
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 making wrecks of their lives. As his family and town become less and less recognizable, Kevin seeks any manner of connection, working hard as mayor to radiate positivity and fight off Mapleton’s descent into nihilism. He also begins a relationship with the grief-stricken Nora, who lost her husband and both of her children and spends her days watching SpongeBob SquarePants in memory of a past family ritual. In all of his interactions — with angry townspeople, with his reeling daughter, with Nora and Laurie, both of whom, in different ways, resist him — he can’t seem to break through.
Kevin is essentially the same warmhearted, regular suburban guy Perrotta has rendered with lighthearted teasing and essential generosity in the past. In The Leftovers, however, Perrotta shows us that same figure as a kind of dinosaur, the novel’s lost American — an old-fashioned true-blooded booster. In his 1922 novel, Babbitt — in large part a satire of the booster tradition — Sinclair Lewis described the local booster club as a “world-force for optimism, manly pleasantry, and good business.” While Perrotta treats his character with far more tenderness than Lewis did his hero, we do see Kevin is a “booster” for his town, for what it means to him: softball leagues, parades, everyone pitching in, a general spirit of generosity and, well, optimism. Unlike the classic booster, however, Kevin’s interests in his town are not driven by promotion, but by emotion. He just wants everyone to be happy again.
Perrotta makes it quite clear: Kevin doesn’t just miss his life before the Sudden Departure. He misses a town that disappeared long before, when the “factory town” became the “bedroom community” in the late 20th century. This longing is one we might all recognize, but Perrotta makes sure we understand this isn’t just about the Rapture or about momentary sentimentality. Participating in the “Departed Heroes’s Day of Remembrance and Reflection,” a dazed and grief-riddled simulation of a small-town parade, Kevin drifts into a reverie of past jaunts down Main Street, with their Little Leaguers, scouts, gimpy veterans groups, the Ladies Auxiliary:
[I]t all seemed impossibly loud and hectic and innocent — fire trucks, tubas, Irish step dancers, baton twirlers in sequined costumes … Afterward there were softball games and cookouts … a sequence of comforting rituals culminating in the big fireworks display over Fielding Lake, hundreds of rapt faces turning skyward, oohing and wowing at the sizzling pinwheels and slow-blooming starbursts that lit up the darkness, reminding everyone of whom they were and where they belonged and why it was all good.
Such conservatism makes utter sense in light of the upheaval the narrative is built on, but it also enables Perrotta to make a twistier point about cultural (and personal) response to change, and about the powerful impulse towards nostalgia as an escape hatch from the world, its hardships, its sorrow.
In her 2002 book, The Future of Nostalgia, cultural historian Svetlana Boym writes that the last century began with “a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia,” which she dubs the “incurable modern condition.” Boym distinguishes between two types of nostalgia: “Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos (‘homecoming’) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia (‘pain’), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.”
In The Leftovers, the women in Kevin’s sphere — estranged wife Laurie, girlfriend Nora, and daughter Jill — all seem to fall into the algia category; after the Departure, they find themselves unable to pretend their way back to normalcy. Kevin, however, seems far closer to Boym’s “restorative nostalgist,” with his longing for nostos. While far from the conspiracy theorists and nationalists that are Boym’s focus, he is, like them, unable to reckon with the real past (his family, his town, perhaps his America) and is thus the most broken of all Perrotta’s characters. He longs not for what he had, but for what he thought he had.
For restorative nostalgists, “the past is not a duration but a family snapshot,” Boym notes. One thinks of Mad Men‘s Don Draper, pitching the Kodak carousel slide wheel, stirring his clients’ longing for a prelapsarian time. The carousel, he tells them as he clicks through a series of family photos, is a time machine, letting us “travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.” But, unlike the shuttering images of family on the carousel, Kevin’s most potent recollections are not about his family at all. Perhaps his happiest moment in the book comes when he arrives at his softball game. Short one outfielder, he “didn’t mind; he was just happy to be there, doing the best possible thing a man could be doing on a beautiful evening like this.”
Throughout the novel, Kevin sees everyone behaving badly, madly, and with great unpredictability. He is desperately eager to connect — with Nora, with Jill, with his errant son — but fails over and over. From the outside, he seems the only one capable of connection, of “believing” enough. But on a subterranean level, we come to see him as the most damaged, the most ill-fit for this new world. At one point, he watches It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie that, however dark, assures you that you do matter, that you’re more than you think you are, not less. But Perrotta shows that such yearnings, and Kevin’s nostalgia, are recklessly insular. They forbid true connection, true community, and true family.
Indeed, what we see through the novel’s other characters — especially Kevin’s estranged wife, gloomy daughter, and potential girlfriend — is that Kevin’s version of the past is largely an abstraction. He and his wife may have had fantasies of being one of those spirited early-retirement couples on the cover of Money magazine, “riding tandem bikes or standing on the deck of their sailboats.” But they never did those things. And as a father, all he could do was “try to look interested” when his wife shared details about his children’s education. Long into his daughter’s troubles, Kevin has never even spoken to one of her teachers. He moves through life barely touching its surface. And now that surface is gone, along with the earth beneath it.
One might argue that The Leftovers is missing the details of the Sudden Departure that provide the book’s premise, but that is irrelevant to Perrotta’s purpose. In a post-9/11, post-economic-collapse world, we do not require an apocalyptic event to underwrite the plausibility of sudden, catastrophic change. Perrotta’s true interests — and the novel’s rich gifts — lie in exploring the way that traditional suburban structures of meaning fail to cohere under the pressure of such changes. Those structures were built, after all, in the balmy days of post-World War II boom, a time when banks, the government, and the nuclear family all seemed rock-solid. Without those structures, there are two choices: to insist they can be restored, or to reckon with a world without them.
“I believe that the basic human condition is to be bystanders of disaster,” Perrotta said at this year’s Book Expo in New York. But in a strange way, The Leftovers has not entirely abandoned the sense that, in a time of crisis, we may still summon a bit of hope, that we can be more than bystanders. In the end, the characters who will endure are the ones able to plumb a deeper, more personal mourning, and learn from their descent, the ones who don’t hold onto old, mostly illusory structures to keep themselves from falling.
With both a clear eye and a strong heart, Perrotta exposes all of his characters’ limitations — their impulse to burrow and despair, or to hold onto their illusions as long as they can — but he makes sure we feel their longing, too. We aren’t permitted comfortable distance from any of them. Because in one way or another, we can all recognize their longing as our own. Because at one point or another, in darker moments, we’ve all faced that realization that the end is near, that life is a series of departures, and that we’re losing people all the time, even when they’re right in front of us, across the kitchen table.