Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers, is widely seen as a commentary on religious fanaticism. Perrotta conjures up a Rapture-like event, which results in the simultaneous disappearance of millions of people. Its randomness leaves religious fanatics flummoxed. This rapture doesn’t just take the righteous; it takes all sorts of people, from sinners to saints.
The story picks up three years later as the after shocks continue to reverberate. The people left behind are shell shocked. Perrotta’s cast of characters reflect the different reactions to the event. Wealthy businessman Kevin Garvey, who decides to run for Mayor of the small northeastern town where the novel is set, represents the optimistic spirit of human nature. Garvey simply wants to move on, even as his own life unravels. As Mayor, he plans community events that celebrate the survivors and the normal life for which they yearn. Others aren’t so willing to return to normal, including his wife, Laurie, bereft by survivor’s guilt. The Garveys were spared, but their daughter’s best friend was taken, causing her mother to join a cult called the Guilty Remnants. They see this event as a sign and they refuse to return to a normal state. The Guilty Remnants wear white clothes, stalk residents of the town, and smoke cigarettes as a reminder that the end is coming, so why worry about lung cancer. Their son, Tom, drops out of college and joins a different cult led by a charismatic charlatan called Holy Wayne. His special talent is to take away people’s pain, but it turns out he also has a fondness for under-aged girls.
Meanwhile, Nora, who lost her whole family, struggles just to make it through the day. When she finally gets her footing, she finds herself in a budding romance with Kevin, but she still can’t find happiness and closure.
While The Leftovers is about religious fanaticism, the story had a different impact on me. I saw it as a commentary on how we deal with loss and disruption, whether it’s 9-11, the financial meltdown, or a death in the family. Do we simply move on, as Kevin does? Do we let it destroy our life as we know it, as Laurie does? Do we deal with it honestly, acknowledging the pain and loss, as Nora does? I suspect the message is that loss changes our lives forever, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
Perrotta doesn’t offer any easy answers to the profound questions about religion, mortality, and loss. The Leftovers is a powerful reminder that there are no easy answers to these age-old questions.