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The Leftovers
The Leftovers
Tom Perrotta
St. Martin's Press, 2011
355 pp., 25.99

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The Leftovers: A Novel
The Leftovers: A Novel
Tom Perrotta
Macmillan Audio, 2011
10 pp., 39.99

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Virginia Stem Owens

Missing Persons

The Rapture? The Sudden Departure? Or what?

As a child I used to picture Jesus coming again the way Bible illustrations showed him, his white robes molding the air around him, his eyes staring out at the viewer instead of looking down at the awestruck crowds on the ground. Thus, one of my chief childhood worries was that I would be in the bathroom at the critical moment and miss the whole thing or be caught, literally, with my britches down.

In my teens, the picture became a little fuzzier and more remote. Gradually I began to figure out that, if Jesus appeared in the sky above Walker County, people in neighboring counties would only be able to discern a descending spot, like a high-flying hawk. As the dot came closer it would begin to take on more visual definition, but only for a smaller area on the ground. For the people in neighboring counties it would sink below the horizon. And if the Second Coming happened above, say, China or Patagonia, citizens of Walker County would miss it altogether. Such are the seductions of trigonometry.

Decades later I listened sadly as my mother, a Parkinson's patient, begged the Lord to come before she lost her mind. I have listened to other sufferers make the same appeal. I used to point out the biblical passage in which Jesus tells his anxious disciples that he himself doesn't know when he will come again. Usually such instruction falls flat. And quoting that passage to such desperate people makes me feel crummy, as if I'm telling a four-year-old there is no Santa Claus.

Yet every Sunday I affirm with relish what the prayerbook calls "the mysteries of faith": "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." Personally, I'm content to leave it at that.

Others have not been, striving for a good bit more detail. Cotton Mather, the 17th-century Puritan, predicted that the world would end in 1697. Unperturbed when this forecast turned out to be mistaken, he prophesied the end twice more. John Nelson Darby, the father of dispensationalism, got around the problem of mistaken predictions of the end of the world by coming up with a new eschatological strategy: the Rapture, sometimes known as "the secret rapture," during which God's chosen would suddenly be plucked up to heaven. Everyone else would be left to endure a lengthy period of tribulations.

These days, apocalyptic tales are a dime a dozen. Many of them—novels, movies, TV shows—are detached from any explicitly theological framework, but they are crystal clear about the end of the world, and it's not a pretty picture. Lots of people disappear, whether via a natural disaster (an earth-aimed asteroid, a virulent plague), a manmade catastrophe (nuclear war, environmental collapse), or some intergalactic invasion that begins what can surely be called an extended tribulation.

Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers is different. True, millions of people of all ages, genders, and faiths or lack thereof suddenly disappear all over the world, including the pope and Vladimir Putin. But the question of what caused their disappearance is never answered. Perrotta himself confesses that he doesn't know the cause of what his characters call either the Rapture or, more circumspectly, the Sudden Departure. I'm not giving away an essential aspect of the story, since Perrotta has revealed this in many print and broadcast interviews. (The Leftovers has already been optioned for a TV series; his novels Election and Little Children have been made into movies and a film version of The Abstinence Teacher is in development.)

The citizens of Mapleton, the author's generic small town in the northeastern part of the country, for the most part are unfamiliar with millenarian distinctions. All they know is that on October 14, three years ago, a number of people from their town suddenly vanished, some right before the eyes of friends and family. In an updated version of Matthew 24, a mother goes to the kitchen to fetch water and returns to find the dining table empty of husband and children. Trains careen off tracks with no one at the controls. A teenager watching TV with her friend is suddenly alone on the couch. The apparent randomness of the selection of those snatched away defies any easy explanation for their disappearance. No wonder it leaves the remaining population feeling like leftovers, as the novel's smirky title has it.

Admittedly, this scenario is rather mild when compared with Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957) or Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006). After all, most of Mapleton's population is still there. And they are precisely the people Perrotta is concerned to portray, in all their guilt, grief, and confusion. He focuses on the town's mayor, Kevin Garvey; his wife, Laurie; daughter, Jill; and son, Tom. After initially denying that this mysterious event has a religious dimension, Laurie, deeply saddened by her best friend's loss of her daughter, leaves the family to join her friend in an ascetic cult, the Guilty Remnant, hoping to find comfort for her own emptiness. Cult members dress in white robes, go barefoot even in winter, eat little, and, as a sacrament and outward sign of their disgrace, smoke cigarettes to show their contempt for life on earth. They are Watchers, silently and spookily bearing witness to the great catastrophe lest anyone forget.

Laurie's defection from her own family leaves Jill, the teenage daughter, feeling understandably abandoned. In a typical adolescent angry reaction, she hangs out with Amy, a homeless and sexually experienced classmate for whom classes have been re-placed with truancy, sexual exploits, and drugs.

Then there's Tom, the Garveys' son, a college student who falls under the spell of Holy Wayne. A blue collar worker who has lost his own son, Wayne discovers he has a gift for healing the anguish of others left behind: when he hugs them, their pain is transferred to him. His gift is never explained, but neither is it explained away. Regrettably, though, Holy Wayne, initially a humble healer, falls prey to pride and promiscuity, taking on several teenage "brides" from whom, he prophesies, a messianic descendant will come. As one of his earliest and most reliable followers, Tom is given the task of secretly conveying a pregnant 16-year-old girl from the cult's ranch on the West Coast to their headquarters on the East Coast so she can give birth with maximum media exposure. They travel disguised as members of the Barefoot People, latterday hippies living it up during the last days.

Meanwhile, Kevin, the mayor, grieving the loss of Laurie and his inability to reach his own children, must try to control the town's disparate groups. He is a decent but quietly desperate guy, looking for comfort himself. And despite the inexplicable interruption three years earlier, the people of Mapleton for the most part seem to be trudging on with their lives, pretty much as usual. They go to work and school, take care of their families or not, and pay little attention to what may be going on in the wider world.

Their insularity leaves this reader, at least, unsatisfied. We never learn how anyone outside whitebread America is handling the global situation. Are there conspiracy theories? Do the disappearances cause wars? How has the global economy been affected?

As the story unfolds, there is some sense of a spectrum of responses within the United States, as evidenced by the weird cults that invade Mapleton (and by the range of responses within a single family, the Garveys). We will all experience losses one day, Perrotta explained in an interview, though perhaps not in such a dramatic fashion, and we will all deal with the resulting grief in many different ways. Why then use the device of the Rapture? Is it just a gimmick? An interesting way for the author to get agnostics like himself to pick up the book? An easy mark for satire, a genre for which Perrotta is known?

Perrotta has said that The Leftovers shouldn't be read primarily as a satire. He admits he may have had that in mind when he began writing, but as he grew more involved with the characters and their pain, he says, that intent was laid aside.

Certainly there are comic scenes in the book. One of the town's ministers is highly offended that he wasn't "raptured," judging that he should have been first in line while the unworthy, promiscuous, and downright atheistic have jumped to the head of the disappeared. But the minister's revenge is not so funny. He starts a newsletter, printing every bit of dirt he can dig up on the departed, adding to the pain of their left-behind loved ones.

The seemingly haphazard nature of the disappearances matches Perrotta's view of life as random. This is the burden skeptics bear, he says. They have no story that explains and gives a shape to life, such as religious believers of whatever stripe possess. And as he must know, the author's principled refusal to offer any explanation for why, how, or where his vanished have gone will frustrate most readers. It breaks a fundamental law of storytelling. If a fiction writer constructs a self-contained reality, shouldn't he know it thoroughly? Or is Perrotta's novel like those weavings or sand paintings that intentionally leave some flaw in order not to tempt the gods with their perfection?

Perrotta dismisses such questions. The randomness of life, he says—whose teenager gets killed in a car wreck, who gets cancer, why marriages break up—is indeed the great mystery we all must contend with.

True enough. The sturdiest believer is sometimes stymied, even shaken, by what we often call life's unfairness. Faith, any faith, is by definition without ultimate evidence. It's always a choice. As is unbelief.

Contrary to the agnostic's estimation, irresolution is the easiest choice, easier than either belief or rejection. Without evidence of things hoped for, how can skepticism go wrong?

For Perrotta, the constructed world of fiction answers his spiritual needs. It reflects undeniable truths about life. Thus he substitutes fiction for faith.

Not long after listening to an interview in which Perrotta made that claim, I heard the words of Somali rapper K'naan, whose country has been torn apart by war and afflicted by famine. "Sometimes," he said, "there isn't enough poetry that can hold the scope of the tragedy."

In the case of The Leftovers, there isn't enough fiction either.

Virginia Stem Owens, a novelist, essayist, and poet, is the author of Caring for Mother: A Daughter's Long Goodbye (Westminster John Knox).

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