Undeterred by their flawed prophecy that the world would end on May 21, 2011, the followers of Harold Camping have dusted off their Bibles to inform us that we now expect the Rapture on October 21st. With that date looming, Tom Perrotta’s kindhearted new novel, an exploration of the emotional landscape facing the “leftovers” when millions of Earth’s inhabitants simply vanish one day, couldn’t be timelier. But instead of pondering the theological implications of an event whose mere contemplation evokes intense reactions, Perrotta uses it as a vehicle for quietly plumbing the depths of our universal need for intimate connection.
"Perrotta demonstrates a keen appreciation for the rhythms and foibles of suburban life, even in these most extraordinary circumstances."
On October 14th in a near distant future, “People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world,” an event that becomes known, with a certain delicate ambiguity, as the Sudden Departure. As expected, there is no agreement on the meaning of this startling occurrence. Christians seem reluctant to accept it as the Rapture because they “couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who’d disappeared…hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” Indeed, one minister devotes himself to the publication of a scandalous newsletter revealing unpleasant secrets about the departed. A high school biology teacher, in turn, describes it as a “natural phenomenon, a kind of global autoimmune reaction, a way for the earth to fight off the raging infection of humanity.”
No region or socioeconomic class is spared, not least the placid northeastern suburb of Mapleton. While the Garvey family --- Kevin (the town’s mayor), his wife, Laurie, and their children, Tom and Jill --- escapes intact, Jill’s best friend disappears before her eyes, and three years later Laurie joins the Guilty Remnant, a group whose members take a vow of silence, dress in white and travel the town in pairs of Watchers, stalking its citizens. Each of the Garveys is hollowed out by a grief that’s no less intense for being universal, and their stories form the novel’s core.
Perrotta recognizes that even an event as stunning as the Sudden Departure would have a hard time overcoming a fundamental fact of human nature: that in the face of disaster, we are programmed simply to go on. “It didn’t matter what happened in the world --- genocidal wars, natural disasters, unspeakable crimes, mass disappearances, whatever --- eventually people got tired of brooding about it,” Kevin Garvey muses. Always the responsible father and public servant, he confronts his daughter’s sullen rebellion and the mundane affairs of city business.
But through the decision to abandon her family, Laurie rejects this “so-called Return to Normalcy, the day-to-day process of forgetting the Rapture, or, at the very least, of consigning it to the past, treating it as a part of the ongoing fabric of human history, rather than the cataclysm that had brought history to an end.” She befriends a young trainee named Meg, fighting the human feelings growing between them in the face of the harsh regulations of the cult.
Meanwhile, Tom Garvey drops out of college and joins the Healing Hug Movement. When the charlatan who leads it impregnates a 16-year-old girl he proclaims will give birth to a Miracle Child, Tom’s job becomes shepherding her across the country to a safe house to give birth. Their journey serves as an unexpected but wholly satisfying vehicle to bring about some of the healing all the Garveys crave.
That healing proves most elusive to Nora Durst, the novel’s other principal character, whose husband and children are arguing at the dinner table one moment and gone the next. She’s been irreparably damaged, “knowing that there was something wrong with her that could never be repaired,” a fact she confirms when she and Kevin take the first tentative steps toward a relationship. But from Perrotta’s sympathetic vantage point, it feels that even she is able to make some halting progress toward recovery by the story’s end.
Characteristically, Perrotta doesn’t entirely forego the comic potential of his premise, alluding to the popularity of an “endless series of gauzy montages celebrating the lives of departed celebrities --- John Mellencamp and J. Lo, Shaq and Adam Sandler, Miss Texas and Greta Van Susteren, Vladimir Putin and the Pope.” Fans of Food Network will be distressed to know that “the small world of superstar chefs had been disproportionately hard hit.”
As he did in books like LITTLE CHILDREN and THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER (a satire of religious fundamentalism that displays some of the bite absent from this novel), Perrotta demonstrates a keen appreciation for the rhythms and foibles of suburban life, even in these most extraordinary circumstances. But in contrast to the often acerbic treatments of Updike or Cheever, Perrotta views his characters with an essential generosity, focusing on their well-meaning, if flawed, attempts to lead decent lives, rather than on a critique of their suburban culture and morality.
Unlike the authors of the Left Behind series, Tom Perrotta professes no insight into whether a Rapture-like event looms. But with humility and clarity, he leaves us feeling that the care we invest in our closest relationships --- no matter the way our lives on Earth end or what awaits us thereafter --- shows the way to our ultimate salvation.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 8, 2011