After writing about religion in his previous novel The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrotta's latest book, The Leftovers, re-enters the territory of America's evangelical Christian right with satiric guns blazing.
The book's title is meant to evoke the Left Behind series of best-selling books co-authored by Jerry B Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, books such as Soul Harvest and The Remnant, which launched a mega-franchise of movies and video games featuring a planet ruined after the End Times, or Rapture, in which devout Christians ascend to heaven and heathens are left behind to suffer in a world of grief, famine, war and economic collapse.
Perrotta punches at the Left Behind series at a time when his own franchise is flourishing. He's made a name for himself with snarky, withering critiques of uptight suburban American life in a batch of highly successful novels, such as Election and Little Children, which were both adapted into films that received warm notices. Now, The Leftovers is primed for bestseller status, thanks to an initial US print run of 300,000 copies, and news last month that Perrotta is adapting the book for a forthcoming HBO television series.
The Leftovers is, then, already a hot property, with a ready-for-TV premise. It's about a suburban family coping with life after a worldwide "Rapture-like phenomenon" called the Sudden Departure, in which millions of people disappeared instantly.
The departure occurs in the present day, on October 14 of an unnamed year, but as everyone soon realises "it doesn't appear to have been the Rapture" as anticipated by true believers. The atmosphere this event generates comes prepackaged with echoes of the mass grief felt in the US after the September 11 terrorist attacks - a fact Perrotta addresses:
"The [news] coverage felt different from that of September 11, when the networks had shown the burning towers over and over. October 14th was more amorphous, harder to pin down: there were massive highway pileups, some train wrecks, numerous small-plane and helicopter crashes ... but the media was never able to settle upon a single visual image to evoke the catastrophe. There also weren't any bad guys to hate, which made everything that much harder to get into focus."
Perrotta's novel is aimed once again at suburban life, namely the Garvey family in the town of Mapleton. The family includes parents Laurie and Kevin, and their teenage children, Tom and Jill. Although none of their immediate family "vaporised" in the Sudden Departure, they are hit hard by its societal aftershocks. Various cults have emerged, fanaticism flourishes, the president is trying to "Jump Start America", and the Garveys muddle along just like all the other wealthy families in Mapleton.
We join their story after the big event. Laurie has left her family to join the Guilt Remnant, a cult devoted to shaming the world into repenting and leaving "the old world" of love and friendship behind. Her son, Tom, has dropped out of college to work in California for Holy Wayne, leader of the Healing Hug Movement. Daughter Jill has been transformed from a perfect, beautiful student into a wild teen. Husband and father Kevin, former owner of "his family's chain of supermarket-sized liquor stores", is now mayor of Mapleton. He minds the house, neglects his daughter, and deals with how the new-found religious impulse has transformed his beloved hometown.
So in one sense, Perrotta throws the American family into a harsh situation; one in which every family will test itself to see what it's really made of in light of the big news - that there is a God. Each family is scrambling to see how well they've done, as they ask themselves if they're good enough, and if they've done enough good, for themselves, for each other, all in a more profound way than they've ever considered such questions before.
We get to see how the Sudden Departure prompted each member of the family to change their life. Laurie leaps into fanaticism, taking a vow of silence, choosing to spend her life openly spying on her neighbours as one of the Watchers, smoking cigarettes "to proclaim our faith" and reminding people "His judgment is upon us".
As for Laurie's daughter, whom she has left behind, "Jill was an Eyewitness," Perrotta writes, capitalising words that have gained importance in society, a jab at the American tendency to brand nouns or make proper titles out of Big Experiences and Big Ideas.
"She and Jen had been hanging out together on October 14th, two giggly young girls ... watching YouTube videos on a laptop. Then, in the time it takes to click a mouse, one of them is gone, and the other is screaming. And people kept disappearing on her in the months and years that followed, if not quite so dramatically. Her older brother leaves for college and never comes home. Her mother moves out of the house, takes a vow of silence. Only her father remains, a bewildered man who tries to help but never manages to say the right thing. How can he when he's just as lost and clueless as she is?"
Perrotta presents a slick, enjoyable narrative, that's both sharp and funny. Even as he describes the "sweaty omelettes" Kevin cooks for his daughter, or a parent's memory of the way their lost child's hair smelled after a bath, the author builds a portrait of the impotence, the pointlessness of suburban America, where adults cannot face how empty their perfect lives are, let alone do something to move them on.
Suburban life isn't merely unattractive in this scenario, Perrotta wants us to be touched by and to understand its futility. The underlying message is a common complaint: Americans are too distracted in life, and there is a consequential high cost for how little time they devote to introspection, strong faith and true community.
When people do come together it's to bond in order to cope, rather than to overcome their troubles and build anew in a world that has become increasingly ominous. "One of the most frequently noted side effects of the Sudden Departure," writes Perrotta, "had been an outbreak of manic socialising - impromptu block parties that last entire weekends, potluck dinners that stretched into sleepovers, quick hellos that turned into marathon gabfests. Bars were packed for months after October 14th; phone bills were exorbitant."
And not all of the new fanatics are as menacing as the Guilt Remnant. The Barefoot People, for instance, are proud hedonists who proclaim: "Misery is the only sin. That's rule number one." But that's little help in combating the pervasive despair and violence, including a murder in town that no one seems interested in solving.
Grim reminders are everywhere. In one scene a bike rider sees "a pack of dogs shadowing her at the edge of the woods, a muscular man whistling cheerfully as he pushed an empty wheelchair down the path ... Then, just last week, she happened upon a man in a business suit sacrificing a sheep in a small clearing near an algae-covered pond." She notes the man and the sheep's "startled, unhappy expressions, as if she'd caught them in an act they would have preferred to remain private."
Soon, Perrotta shows how apathy - or basic human perseverance - wins out. "It didn't matter what happened in the world - genocidal wars, natural disasters, unspeakable crimes, mass disappearances, whatever - eventually people got tired of brooding about it. Time moved on, seasons changed ..."
Lines such as this, after so many scenes of everyday life straining towards normal - awkward parades, town hall meetings, quiet breakfasts - create a powerful sinking feeling, as if Perrotta's prose style represents the very alluring layer of escapism in society that he's satirising.
Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who serves on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book Award.