Tuesday, August 30, 2011

“The Leftovers”

By Tom Perrotta
ISBN No. 978-0-307-35638-3

Tom Perrotta’s previous books were about high school politics (“Election”; great book, great movie), an extramarital affair (“Little Children”; great book, awful movie) and a censored sex education teacher (“The Abstinence Teacher”; great book, soon-to-be a movie). A reviewer called Perrotta “an American Chekhov” and the title fits. His view on the lives of quiet desperation being endured by your neighbours reaffirms your belief that literature still exists in a world where even the idiots from “Jersey Shore” publish books (books!) in the pursuit of media domination. It was only a matter of time before Perrotta took (another?) aim at evangelical American politics. As such, the title and plot of “The Leftovers” is depressingly appropriate. It’s vintage Perrotta, for sure (terrifically written with the most natural dialogue in books today) but it’s also an uneasy visit to Chuck Palahniuk territory (painstakingly detailed and weird for weird’s sake). When some Mapleton townsfolk suddenly disappear “POOF!”-style, the leftovers (or those “Left Behind” – to use the name of a series of movies about The Rapture made by a former child actor from TV’s “Growing Pains”) wonder if the explanation is scientific or religious, and adjust their lives belief-wise. In new mayor Kevin Garvey’s house, that includes his wife joining a homespun cult called the Guilty Remnant, his son trailing after a charlatan prophet called Holy Wayne, and the possibility of a new romance with a woman whose whole family went POOF!
What results is what usually results when a writer writes about religion – especially new sects. Perrotta spends so much text laying down – and then reminding us of - the ground rules of his story’s premise that the reader really works for that payoff at the end of an especially long paragraph about The Unburdening. Yes, it’s frequently hilarious, but sometimes you really do feel like The Leftover who “couldn’t sit still for lectures…the professor’s words blurred into a meaningless drone, a sluggish river of pretentious phrases.” Perhaps religion is already so melodramatic that it’s become un-parodyable.
Still, this is Tom Perrotta and the book is both a smart hoot and a witty indictment of the hypocrisy and stupidity that freely flows around our culture courtesy of too many internet connections, too many stupid people, and too few reliable news sources. The disappeared of the book aren’t just the figments of our religious culture, but also the smarts of a dying literature, as well as “The Disappeared” (to quote the title of Kim Echlin’s book) of far-flung exotic locales where young men and women just go missing for seemingly no reason at all and no one with any power seems to care. Perhaps the most distressing lesson learned from “The Leftovers” is how anyone envisioning a world of constructive thought, of actual ideas, a place where the Tom Perrottas of our world publish frequently and freely, is likely to be rewarded, instead, with a society still mired in the political dark ages of Fox News.