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.

Tom’s only sibling is Jill, an angst-ridden high school senior who is an Eyewitness — she was with, but not looking at, her supposed best friend at the moment Jen Sussman vanished. One of Jill’s co-workers lost her mother in the Sudden Departure; rather than stay with her creepy stepfather, Aimee has moved in with Jill and her father.

The extroverted Aimee has expanded Jill’s social circle, but she’s also encouraged her young host to cut classes with ever-increasing frequency. Jill finds herself uncomfortable with the way her attractive friend frequently flounces about the house — and around Jill’s father — in skimpy attire.

The other key character in The Leftovers is Nora Durst, generally considered to be Mapleton’s hardest-hit resident; her entire family, a husband and two young children, vanished three years ago. She encounters Kevin after a local scandal sheet cruelly announces that Durst’s husband had been having an affair with a worker at their daughter’s day-care center.

Somewhat paradoxically, the revelation helps Durst move forward with the process of mourning her family. She and Kevin find themselves drawn to each other, even as Garvey wrestles with the feelings he retains for his estranged wife — and even as he begins to develop a close friendship with Aimee, his young houseguest.

Perrotta’s novel covers about nine months in the lives of these characters, alternating viewpoints among members of the Garvey family and Durst. Perrotta is one of my favorite novelists. The author of Election (which was made into a popular movie), Joe CollegeLittle ChildrenThe Abstinence Teacher and other books has a simple, clear prose style and a talent for sketching characters whom the readers can immediately recognize.

Tom’s initial disaffection with college — the Sudden Departure occurred during his freshman year at Syracuse — stems from learning that a childhood friend he hadn’t seen since sixth grade is one of the people who vanished. Tom hadn’t seen the kid in years, and he knows that the loss is affecting him disproportionately. But affect him it does, especially when he encounters an early, sincere and mysteriously comforting early incarnation of the slickster who eventually becomes Holy Wayne.

By contrast, Jill’s dysfunction is less a reaction to the disappearance of Jen Sussman — the two friends had drifted apart — than to the influence of the people in her life. The defections of her mother and brother from her family, Aimee’s dissolute habits and the general malaise that seems to permeate Mapleton all exacerbate Jill’s teenage angst:

Technically, she was supposed to sign herself in at the main office, but that was one of those regulations nobody paid much attention to anymore, a holdover from a more orderly and obedient time. Jill had only been in high school for five weeks before the Sudden Departure, but she still had a vivid memory of what it was like back then, the teachers serious and demanding, the kids focused and motivated, full of energy. Almost everybody played an instrument or went out for a sport. Nobody smoked in the bathroom; you could get suspended for making out in the hall. People walked faster in those days — at least that’s how she remembered it — and they always seems to know exactly where they were going.

Jill, like all Perrotta’s characters — like everyone in the world — is vulnerable to factors that are outside of her control. But in The Leftovers, Perrotta shows that a person’s character is largely the result of her or his choices, and that a person can sometimes alter his or her fate by making different choices and by latching on to the opportunities, unlikely though they may be, that life allows us.

Some of the characters find moments of redemption and happiness when they act responsibly, while others shrug aside their obligations (to themselves and their families) and find themselves slipping toward oblivion, however haltingly.

Much like real life, this process is muddled, rather than clear-cut. Kevin Garvey in particular has difficulty balancing his efforts to guide Jill and Aimee against a tendency to nag. (Kevin’s parenting efforts parallel his work as Mapleton’s mayor, where good intentions and good advice aren’t always effective at helping people.) Similarly, Tom frequently holds his tongue because he recognizes that nothing he can say will bring Christine and others he encounter around to his (frequently confused) opinion. Laurie struggles to balance her budding friendship with her trainee with her sometimes-conflicting obligations to the organization she has joined and the family she has divorced in fact, if not in the eyes of the law.

By the book’s end, some of the characters seem to be headed on a positive path, while at least one is basically headed for damnation, and the outcome for a few could still go either way. Ironically, one of the most successful characters has also, thanks to a combination of good intentions, ignorance and inaction, enabled — or at least failed to block — one of the more horrifying events in The Leftovers.

Some of the characters’ fates are fulfilling to readers; others, saddening. A few are puzzling, because the people in question seemed ready to change paths before momentum or a sudden whim or an odd coincidence (or some darker, more mysterious force) carried them a certain way. It’s a testament to Perrotta’s skill as a writer that some of the unexpected results are effective — the switch-ups resemble the way life actually works — instead of seeming forced or unearned.

I was a little hesitant to read The Leftovers because I was afraid it might be a disappointment, after the degree to which I enjoyed Perrotta’s earlier books. In fact, this novel is quite pleasing — a fresh concoction by a chef who’s at the height of his powers.


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