So, the Rapture. It's been predicted a bunch of times throughout Christian history, most recently--and very spectacularly, with radio spots and billboards in Spanish and English all over the country--by California radio evangelist Harold Camping, who predicted that most of us would be left behind on May 21, 2011 and then, when that date came and went, on October 21 of the same year. Needless to say, that hasn't happened. But it's a fascinating concept that has captivated religious and irreligious alike for hundreds of years. There's even a long-running series of supernatural thrillers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins which is set among those not taken up. The Left Behind books scare the bejesus, if you'll pardon the expression, out of people, and are wildly popular.
Tom Perrotta's latest book The Leftovers tackles the Rapture--or, to be more accurate, the sociological and psychological effects of a "Rapture-like phenomenon"--with both mordant wit and generosity of spirit. As the book opens the world is still reeling from what is being called the "Sudden Departure," which saw millions of people around the world disappear from dinner tables and airplanes, classrooms and bedrooms and offices, all at the same moment. The world is still reeling, and people are still scratching their heads at the meaning of the event, which doesn't appear to have come from a religious place of reward and punishment, as those taken came from all faiths, and even included unbelievers.
Society as a whole has coped as well as can be expected. Leaders secular and religious have sought a cause or a reason for the event. Many have lost their faith. Cults have arisen, and two, the Guilty Remnant and the Healing Hug Movement, will play an important role in the lives of the Garveys, the family at the center of The Leftovers. The Guilty Remnant, or GR, is a group the mission of which is to remind those who remain that the end really is nigh, and that the way to reserve a place on the next elevator up is to take a vow of silence and mortify the flesh to assure one's readiness and purity. The GR dress in white and are never seen in public without a cigarette (a visible reminder that the physical self is the least important aspect of the person). The Healing Huggers follow a charismatic who calls himself Holy Wayne and who can take on an individual's spiritual pain, if only temporarily, through his hugs.
Each member of the Garvey family has dealt with the Sudden Departure differently. Father Kevin, who was elected mayor of the small town of Mapleton not long after the event, strives for normality. Kevin is relentlessly cheerful. He makes omelets for daughter Jill and her friend Aimee, arranges for an anniversary parade remembering those who were taken, waits for wife Laurie to come to her senses and return to him. Laurie has joined the Guilty Remnant, and can be seen around town dressed in white, smoking, and staring relentlessly at those targeted by her group for...censure? recruitment? judgement? It's never entirely clear. Elder child Tom left college to join Holy Wayne's entourage, and is now on the run from the scandal that has brought the cult down. And Jill, the younger child, just runs wild. She's shaved her head, smokes dope in the morning, cuts classes.
As in his previous novels (most recently Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher), Tom Perrotta manages both to skewer contemporary suburban sensibilities and to treat them with an achingly beautiful sensitivity. His characters, while as bristly, self-centered, and annoying as they come, are at the same time real and rich, and so well-rounded I identified with each in turn. I frequently found myself wondering as I read what form my dealing would take, were I to be in the position of the left behind. Yeah, I'm pretty sure I'd join a cult. But a fun one.