Book Review: Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers

The Leftovers

Jonathan May

I finished this novel recently, and my friend J—– informed me that it would be released this summer on HBO as a miniseries. My first question was How? But the more I think about it, my real question is Why?

The Leftovers takes as its main device the Biblical rapture, wherein the elect are called to Heaven, leaving those on Earth to repent or suffer. Within the first five pages, the religious aspect of the rapture has fallen to the wayside; just any people, regardless of character or religious affiliation, are taken. It seems God wasn’t so picky after all, if God is indeed to blame. The novel, pointedly it seems, lets blame rest on the self-conscious shoulders of the citizens of Mapleton, a Blue Velvet-esque town name if there ever was one. We focus mostly, in close third, on the newly elected mayor, an affable, forgettable character named Kevin Garvey. He tries to help his fellow citizens deal with the weirdness of it all, having lost none of his family in the “taking.” However, as people start to deal with the event by forming cultish groups, Kevin loses family along the way.

We’re in and out of his wife Laurie’s mind as well; she ultimately leaves him to join the Guilty Remnant, a chain-smoking silent group dedicated to asceticism, silence, and a mission. Smoking and in pairs, they rove the country, making sure no one forgets what has happened, and that the final reckoning is yet to come. The idea of silence is powerful within the novel; people literally vanished without a bang, without an inkling of anything. And so the silence must continue for some. Laurie as a character is very strong, but her intentions aren’t. Why does she join the group? Is it guilt, or something else? I feel like we never know.

This novel, like many of Perrotta’s others (Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher), dwells superbly within the contemporary suburban mind. He highlights deftly the quotidian and how necessary it is. But what the novel fails to do is provide us any sense of resolution; in fact, the way the novel ends (I won’t spoil it) actively works against resolution, forcing the reader to construct a possible ending. I found this cheap and flabby, as far as fiction goes. I would rather be pointed to a moral certainty about the work, even if it ends up being about amorality. Instead, we’re given some kind of Inception-like wishy-washy, choose-your-own-path scene that simply stops.

The writing is strongest when we’re bouncing around from character to character, and I wish there had been more of that. Since we settle on Kevin most often, his portions should have been the most arresting, but we’re given clichés like, “There was always that little secret between them, the memory of a summer night, the awareness of a road not taken.” I almost put the book down there, but my curiosity about what would happen to Laurie, the daughter Jill, and a certain unborn child who is introduced early on drove me to finish it.

I have no idea how this will translate to film; to build toward such a nothing of an ending seems like an incredible waste of time and money. But who knows? Maybe HBO will give some resolution where there was none.

You can listen to a sample from the audiobook of The Leftovers from Macmillan Audio here:

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Image source: io9

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9 comments

  1. I love Tom Perrotta; this sounds like a hilarious book. Having lived in Connecticut, I can attest to the accuracy of his latest short story collection Nine Inches.

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