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Tom Perotta ponders end of days in ‘The Leftovers’

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By Tom Perotta

St. Martin’s, 355 pages, $25.99

Updated: November 16, 2011 1:52AM

T he Leftovers is sort of an “Our Town” for End Times.
Tom Perrotta, our Balzac of the burbs (Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher), has come up with a wild premise for his engaging, entertaining new novel. Suddenly, on one average Oct. 14, a huge number of people vanish from the earth. The only explanation is that The Rapture has occurred, the biblical prophecy that describes how good people will be called to heaven before the Apocalypse.

The popular, deadly serious Left Behind series starts from a similar premise. You know from his title, however, that Perrotta is up to something slyly different.

Of course, the world is in shock and full of sadness immediately following the “Sudden Departure.” Yeah, yeah. But Perrotta doesn’t dwell there. Instead, he narrows his affectionate and gently satirical focus to the middle-American village of Mapleton and shows us a bunch of folks trying to get on with their lives. It’s a mark of the novelist’s skill and acute observation that the people are always much more interesting than the eschatological events surrounding them (including the disappearances of “John Mellencamp and J. Lo, Shaq and Adam Sandler, Miss Texas and Greta Van Susteren, Vladimir Putin and the pope”).

The “action” takes place about three years after the disappearance, and life in Mapleton is almost absurdly normal, given the circumstances. But what else can you do? Life goes on. School, softball games, business, love, grocery shopping, etc. Underneath, however, each family has come to grips with its losses in different ways.

The Garvey family is fairly typical.

Kevin, Mapleton’s mayor, is lonely, but doing OK. Daughter Jill starts having trouble at school and begins hanging out with the wrong crowd. That could just be normal teenage angst . . . or it could be a reaction to her mother’s having joined the “Guilty Remnant.”

The GR are a white-clad, cloistered semi-cult whose members have sworn off speaking. They ritually smoke cigarettes and pair up to walk the streets and stare at people to remind them that further judgment is coming. Laurie Garvey, somewhat hesitantly, becomes one of these “Watchers.”

Meanwhile, son Tom blows off college to follow Holy Wayne, a charismatic faith healer with a savior complex and a taste for multiple teenage brides. When Wayne is arrested, rootless Tom finds himself on a cross-country odyssey with one of the wives, who is convinced she’s carrying holy spawn.

If all this sounds a little far-fetched, don’t fret. The novel intertwines these stories at a graceful pace in prose so affable that the pages keep turning without hesitation. With Perrotta at the controls, you buy the set-up and sit back as he takes off and explores these humans in very human terms. The Leftovers is really just another variation on that old novelistic trope: create some intriguing characters, put them in an interesting situation and watch what happens.

The Garveys and their neighbors are all just looking for avenues back into normal life. They find themselves trying to connect through hard-won love, challenging relationships, new experiences and by joining groups who give a sense of belonging. Think of the Guilty Remnant as nothing more than a kind of post-millennial Rotary.

At its root, though, The Leftovers has much in common with “Our Town” and the age-old wisdom of that play. For all of its trumped-up trappings, the novel is really a depiction of everyday life and people in a small place. The novel is a warning that we can lose loved ones without warning. And it’s a reminder that we will all suffer the deaths of those closest to us. We should take note of today, and realize we will have to go on tomorrow, whatever it brings.

The Rapture is really the least of our worries.

John Barron is publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.

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