"THE LEFTOVERS." By Tom Perrotta. St. Martin's Press. $25.99.
Satirist Tom Perrotta has had a good time putting suburbia through its paces before, in such wickedly funny novels as "Little Children," "The Abstinence Teacher" and "Election," but the challenge he throws down in his sixth novel is a doozy -- and makes for what may well be his wildest, most entertaining and thought-provoking novel yet.
Instead of more conventional terrors -- sex offenders, infidelity, abstinence education, high school politics -- the bewildered residents of upper-middle-class Mapleton are faced with a great global crisis: what to do when the Rapture arrives.
Of course, no one's entirely sure that what happened was the Rapture; they only know that millions of people mysteriously vanished from Earth (Shaq and J.Lo among them; no word on what happened to the "Real Housewives of Miami"). The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse haven't yet put in an appearance. Some experts are grimly determined to persuade those left behind (or "Left Behind," if you prefer) that the event was merely a Sudden Departure, "a Rapture-like phenomenon" and not the real thing.
"Some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn't help noticing that many of the people who had disappeared on Oct. 1 -- Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were -- hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn't be was random. ... An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all."
This uncertain state of affairs has left the remainders reeling, and the Garvey family offers a perfect example of the myriad ways in which people react to shock, tragedy and a necessary realignment of priorities.
None of the Garveys Suddenly Departed, though a friend vanished in front of teenage daughter Jill, who begins to neglect her schoolwork and dabble in sex and drugs. Son Tom takes things to a different extreme: He drops out of college to follow the "healing" prophet Holy Wayne, who claims he can cure sorrow via hugs and develops what could be considered an unhealthy interest in teenage girls.
For carelessly agnostic mom Laurie, "God's intrusion into her life couldn't have been any clearer if He'd addressed her from a burning azalea." Husband Kevin runs for mayor in the wake of the event, prompted by townspeople desperate for leadership. He's a proponent of moving on: remembering the Departed, sure, but also starting up the softball league, waving flags at the Fourth of July parades on Main Street and sipping a few beers after work with colleagues.
But Laurie can't return to her comfortable old life. She yearns to escape "the unreality of pretending things were more or less OK, 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 the world still insisted on offering."
She finds herself swayed by the Guilty Remnant, a mysterious cult whose members take a vow of silence, wear only white, smoke cigarettes as a sort of sacrament and consider it their duty to constantly shadow the Leftovers to remind them of what happened.
Perrotta satirizes believers and nonbelievers alike in "The Leftovers"; no human foible is really safe here as he chronicles our weakness, our neediness, our fears. But despite his sly humor, Perrotta is compassionate, and his characters are all supremely human, even the most flawed and foolish.
And despite the book's alarming premise and its surprisingly insightful exploration of grief and loss, in its pages lurks a strangely comforting idea: that even when the world turns upside down, most of us keep chugging along.
"The Leftovers" can be irreverently funny, but it also offers an inspiring nugget of truth: that humankind is resilient, that those simple pleasures Laurie dreads really are worth living for: the satisfying thump of a softball caught soundly in a glove; the promise of a raucous party; a cute boy who might like you; dancing to Prince's sublime "Little Red Corvette"; the unforgettable smell of a new baby.
All those things, they're small blessings, but they're life. Enjoy them -- and Perrotta's terrific book -- while you can.
-- Connie Ogle