Friday, September 9, 2011

Perrotta's latest a dark look at what it's like to still be here

When I popped the first CD of Tom Perrotta's new novel "The Leftovers" into my car CD player for a recent 4-hour drive to my favorite lake getaway, I couldn't make sense of the story. I kept replaying the first few minutes, trying to figure it out. I thought to myself, "This is some sci-fi nonsense, and I don't like it, but since I have several hours to kill, I might as well listen."

Well, "The Leftovers" (Macmillan Audio, released Aug. 30, 2011, 8 CDs, 11 hours, unabridged, read by actor Dennis Boutsikaris, $39.99) got better ... when I realized the story wasn't supposed to make sense.

It's about what happens in a small American town after a Rapture-like event occurs, presumably worldwide. In a split second, something like half the humans on the planet are gone without a trace, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason for who's taken and who's left. Or "leftover" as the title suggests.

Perrotta, author of "Election" and "Little Children," popular novels made into acclaimed films, doesn't get into the details of what happened or why this mass disappearance occurred in "The Leftovers." This story is about who remains, and how people react to what they call the "Sudden Departure."

And yes, it's a story that's quite dark and cynical. But the strength, fragility and humanity of the characters Perrotta paints make the premise compelling.

The hero of the tale is Kevin Garvey, a successful businessman and family man who is elected mayor of the town of Mapleton, where the story is set, after the Sudden Departure. Kevin is someone who always tries to see the bright side, despite the fact that his oldest son has dropped out of Syracuse to follow a religious leader of sorts, his high-school aged former Straight-A student daughter has fallen in with a slacker crowd, and, key to the story, his wife Laurie has also left the family to join a cult.

Laurie becomes part of a group called The Guilty Remnant. Those in the "GR" take a vow of silence, live on a compound in town, wear only white, smoke incessantly (as an outward sign that they believe the end is near and cancer can't touch them) and follow people around town, staring at them pointedly,  to remind them of their mortality and of those who were lost in the Sudden Departure. GR members sell all their earthly goods for the good of the order, and give up basically everything, becoming voiceless sheep for a mysterious cause that turns out to be more ominous than it appears. Creepy, yet believable.

The book is told from alternate viewpoints: (and a multitude of voices, which the talented Boutsikaris performs winningly). We hear from Laurie and Kevin, and their children Tom and Jill, but also from Nora, a woman who lost both her young children and her husband in the Sudden Departure. Nora is seen as the person who lost the most in town, and is called upon to make speeches at parades and such. She quickly comes to the conclusion that doesn't much like being a martyr, and finds ways to escape - by taking daily bike rides or simply by avoiding people.

Many religious leaders who were not "taken" in this Rapture-like event freak out because they were not taken. They question their faith, whether they are good enough. One reverend becomes obsessed with proving his theory that not all who disappeared are virtuous. He starts to publish a weekly tattler, describing the "sins" of local folks who were among the disappeared. This, of course, makes him not such a popular guy, telling people their lost husband was an adulterer or that their beloved grandmother was a lesbian.

It didn't occur to me, until I was nearly finished with the book and the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11 was looming, that there are some parallels. "The Leftovers" is a story about survival, about living with the loss of people we love.

On 9/11 thousands of people were killed in a flash. Their loved ones and the entire country, and beyond, mourn that sudden loss, and live with that memory every day.

Perrotta talks about survival, of living beyond a deadly event beyond our control - or, more, simply, of living with our mortality, as a premise for "The Leftovers" in an interview with a Macmillan executive producer that follows the audiobook.

"One of my original ideas was that I would write a sort of comic post-apocalyptic novel ... while there is quite a bit of humor in the book I think I ultimately realized that it was more about grief and loss and sadness," Perrotta said.

He continued, "The Rapture .... does happen in a sense ... as a metaphor for getting older, for mortality and living with mortality - it's just really powerful. We all basically live in a world that is defined by people who have disappeared. Obviously they haven't disappeared in some sudden unexplained way but just the sense of living with the absences and living with loss and trying to go on in spite of the fact that there are these mysteries that you don't understand. ... I thought, on the one hand it's an extraordinary event,  but on the other hand, it's what we all do everyday."

At the end of the story (or from the point that I understood the inexplicable event was to remain inexplicable), I wasn't calling this story sci-fi nonsense anymore. It's quite an imaginative tale, and rather deep, with bits of lightness thrown in for good measure. Good for those who don't mind a trip to the dark side.

Click here to see Perrotta's webpage for "The Leftovers." On that page you can link to an mp3 excerpt from the audiobook.

No comments: