#2 in 52: The Leftovers

Last week I committed myself to the 52 in 52 project.  This week I put forward #2 of 52:  The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta.

The Leftovers is a novel that really asks one fundamental question: What would happen if millions of us disappeared in a split second and our families and friends were left behind to sift through the aftermath of our mass exodus? The answer: life would banally go on.  It is this reality that is killing all of the “leftovers.”

Tom Perrotta has been dubbed the Steinbeck of Suburbia because of his rare ability to illuminate the struggles inherent in ordinary lives (I would argue that Rick Moody does it even better).  In his latest novel, The Leftovers, Perrotta writes of how the Garvey family – Kevin, Laurie and their two children, Tom and Jill – react to a Rapture like event that has whisked millions of people off the face of the world.  As Stephen King succinctly states, the novel is a troubling disquisition on how ordinary people react to extraordinary and inexplicable events, the power of family to hurt and heal, and the unobtrusive ease with which faith can slide into fanaticism.

Although no members of the Garvey family were taken away in the event referred to as “October 14,” their escape from being forever separated ironically tears them apart. Kevin, a self-made millionaire, comes out of early retirement and becomes town mayor.  He alone is the one character that just seems “to get on with it” and tries to reclaim the life that used to be.  His wife, Laurie, cannot recover from the sense of loss that surrounds her. She leaves her family and joins a local cult called the Guilty Remnant.  Taking a vow of silence and, in a hilarious twist, a commitment to smoking, she participates in silent protests dressed in all-white robes, stalking citizens to remind them that the end of the world is nigh. Their son Tom drops out of Syracuse, follows a corrupt healer who calls himself “Holy Wayne” and professes to “hug away” survivors’ pain. He eventually leaves the Huggers and joins up with the Barefoot People who believe that the proper response to what has befallen them is to party 24/7. Meanwhile, his sister Jill (who lost her best friend) finds that late-night parties with high stakes “spin the bottle” games suddenly seem more important than 11th grade.

In writing of these characters and the choices they make, Perrotta could be making a comment about everything from reaction to 9/11 to labour unrest: that in times of real trouble, extremism trumps logic and meaningful dialogue ceases to transpire.

The novel does raise many issues but the thematic thrust is poignantly real: the struggle to recover from irremediable loss. Most of the characters (like beloved spouses who have lost their life partners or parents who have lost a child) simply cannot recover.  However, as it is with Perrotta’s various homofictus (I love this term from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel) so it is with us – some of us do manage to love again.  It is this reality that is offered to the reader as the ultimate hope: when everything around you is falling apart and you lose all sense of direction, love is the pathway home.

The Leftovers is a novel that isn’t going to pick you up or leave you with any happy Hollywood ending. However, if you want to be provoked and want to ponder a certainty that will eventually befall each of us, this is a book you will want to read.

I can only say this: realizing that I was behind the proverbial 8 ball last night with 150 pages to read prior to my self-imposed Friday deadline, I was engaged for about 2 ½ hours with these characters while lying in bed (awkward as this statement sounds, it makes me smile so I’ll leave it as is!).  In the end, upon turning over the last page and closing the book, I removed my reading glasses and experienced the quintessential comfort of turning off my bedside light, cuddling up to my wife and holding her tight: thanking her in silence for the reality she has created for me and trying not to deal with the other reality that one day, unfortunately, one of us will be a leftover.