Archive for May 29th, 2014

Stumbling toward decency: ‘The Leftovers’ in Perrotta’s 2011 novel grapple with the aftermath of a mysterious vanishing

May 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 29, 2014

Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers, spins a moving story based on an unusual premise.

One mid-October day, millions of people suddenly vanish from the Earth. This eerie phenomenon is not the Rapture, because many of the departed were Jews, Muslims and others who did not worship Jesus as the messiah. Perrotta, one of my favorite American novelists, mainly tracks the aftermath of what is called the “Sudden Departure” from the perspective of the Garvey family.

Following the stage-setting prologue, in which mother of two Laurie Garvey joins a cult that forbids its members from speaking, the main action begins three years after the still-unexplained mass vanishing. Kevin Garvey is now the first-term mayor of Mapleton, a small town that seems to be located in central New Jersey; he decided to run for office after selling the chain of liquor stores he inherited and expanded. Most of his constituents have gathered for the town’s first Day of Heroes celebration. The event is a sort of curative, meant to keep the third anniversary of the Sudden Departure from being too depressing.

Kevin’s wife, Laurie, is struggling to adjust to the vow of silence, and the effective life of penury, that is required by her “organization,” the Mapleton chapter of a new sect called the Guilty Remnant. Her commitment is affected by her first trainee, a lonely, vulnerable young woman named Meg who has broken her engagement to join the G.R., as the group is called.

Their son, Tom, has also separated himself from his family to join a different cult-like group. But unlike the G.R., which is growing, the Healing Hug Movement is on the verge of disbanding. Its central figure, Wayne Gilchrest, a.k.a. Holy Wayne, has been arrested on a battery of tax evasion, sexual assault and other charges.

Tom’s growing disaffection with Gilchrest and general malaise is disrupted when a teenager named Christine, Holy Wayne’s fourth “spiritual bride,” shows up at the San Francisco Healing Hug Center. “Congratulations,” Christine tells Tom. “You’re my new babysitter.” Tom finds himself drawn to the pretty young woman, despite her being pregnant with Gilchrest’s supposedly prophesied miracle child.

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