“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.
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.