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.