“The Leftovers” picks up three years after the Rapture, or, as the experts call it, “a Rapture-like phenomenon”: One day, millions of people suddenly vanished all over the world. “This wasn’t some ancient rumor,” Perrotta writes, “a dead man coming back to life during the Roman Empire — or a dusty homegrown legend, Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York, conversing with an angel. This was real.” But unlike the eschatological pornography imagined in Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s best-selling “Left Behind” series, this Rapture seems to have been “a random harvest.” Saints and sinners, Christians and Muslims, even atheists and homosexuals have all been gathered up indiscriminately by the Son of God. Or something. It’s impossible to say. The Four Horsemen never ride in. There’s no thundering message from On High, no angels, no warfare in heaven and Earth. Just the chaff, the stunned leftovers, unharmed but wandering through an “invisible haze of stale grief and chronic bewilderment,” wondering what it meant, where their loved ones are, how they should go on with their ordinary, unredeemed lives.
And so what we have is a novel soaked in mourning from its very first pages: a survivor’s tale, like a story of 9/11 without any ashes or anyone to blame, which, of course, is a recipe for self-mutilation in the dark minds of the inconsolable.
At this point, you’re probably feeling like those aliens in “Stardust Memories” who told Woody Allen they prefer his early, funny work. Indeed, Perrotta’s shift away from comedy has been picking up speed since “Little Children,” and despite some witty touches and a few broad swipes at manipulative preachers and cynical politicians, “The Leftovers” is not particularly satirical or even humorous. But it is certainly his most mature, absorbing novel, one that confirms his development from a funnyman to a daring chronicler of our most profound anxieties and human desires. (He’s also adapting the story for HBO.)
Despite the cataclysmic event at the center of “The Leftovers,” Perrotta ignores almost all the sci-fi apocalyptic mechanics of the Rapture. There are lots of stray dogs on the loose from vanished owners, and “the small world of superstar chefs had been disproportionately hard hit,” but otherwise, this is not a work of speculative or alternative history. He mostly keeps the focus on a pleasant New England town called Mapleton, struggling to deal with the unexplained absence of hundreds of people. (A thin, itinerant story line outside of Mapleton is the novel’s weak link.) The new mayor, Kevin Garvey, is a decent, conciliatory man who’s doing his best to help the citizens of Mapleton rebuild their lives. But his own life is falling apart, which we watch as the story rotates through his various family members and a few other townspeople.