Most troubling, Kevin’s wife, Laurie, has left him for a rapidly growing monastic group called the Guilty Remnant, dedicated to resisting “the so-called Return to Normalcy.” G.R. renounces personal privacy, takes a vow of silence and sends its members wandering around town smoking cigarettes (no need to worry about lung cancer now!). Each pair of white-clad Watchers, as they’re called, is charged with following people on the streets and staring at them, silently reminding them of the Sudden Departure and the fact that “God was watching, keeping track of your smallest actions.” If martyrdom is the result of that obnoxious tactic, well then praise God.
Inventing his own macabre cult was a brilliant strategy on Perrotta’s part because it frees him from the danger of lobbing easy liberal shots at evangelical Christians and allows him to concentrate instead on the tragic perversions of religious faith. Poor Laurie remains deeply concerned about her family, but after seeing so many other people’s lives ruined, she couldn’t go back to “pretending things were more or less okay, that they’d hit a bump on the road and should just keep on going, attending to their duties, uttering their empty phrases, enjoying the simple pleasures.” She was thirsting for a more grounded life, “a regimen of hardship and humiliation that at least offered you the dignity of feeling like your existence bore some sort of relationship to reality.” It’s a tender examination of a woman’s need for solace and the way that desire can be twisted by zealots in increasingly horrific ways.
Meanwhile, her estranged husband, Kevin, lumbers along as best he can, resisting despair and abandonment, the twin temptations of our age, whether the end is nigh or not. A patient father, worried about being too lenient or too strict, he struggles to find some comfort in the arms of a woman who lost her entire family: Nora, known as “The Saddest Woman in the World.” Torn between the need for human contact and the stomach-turning anxieties of dating in middle age, she and Kevin make a charmingly sympathetic couple, so deeply damaged, so unlikely to succeed. Perrotta’s handling of Nora’s anger is perhaps the novel’s most poignant aspect. She can’t bear to be the symbol of bereavement, to feel the pressure of everyone’s sympathy, their “knowing glances or . . . tragic little sighs.” Might an ordinary man’s affection offer her a way back to life?
Leavened with humor and tinged with creepiness, this insightful novel draws us into some very dark corners of the human psyche. Sad as these people are, their sorrow is absorbing rather than depressing. Though he still hasn’t left the suburbs, Perrotta has managed to prove again, as Updike and Cheever did, that here in the quiet, tree-lined streets of a nice neighborhood, people are fighting cosmic battles with their own and others’ demons.
In the final pages, as of old, an infant with cloudy paternity provides the possibility for a new beginning, even redemption. But Perrotta doesn’t push hard on that theme. He’s far too humane to be dogmatic with those of us left behind.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.