Although I judge books by their covers all the time, I try not to judge readers by their choices. You might like pulpy mysteries, dramatic vampire fiction, chick-lit paperbacks or serialized sci-fi and, while it may not all be my cup of tea, I respect your choices. But every so often, a book comes along that tests my open minded aspirations — such was the case with the Left Behind series, a set of books that boiled the mystical, prophetic Christian concept of the Rapture into a series of formulaic novels that flew off the shelves “in the blink of an eye,” if you’ll pardon the pun.
So I had to smile when I heard Tom Perrotta was taking on The Rapture in his new novel — and that the title, The Leftovers, is a pretty funny twist on the uber-popular Left Behind moniker. Perrotta’s books aren’t usually spiritual. With bestsellers like Little Children and Election (they’ve been turned into movies, so you might associate them with Reese Witherspoon or Kate Winslet), he’s proven himself as a master of screwed up suburbia with an emphasis on the slightly (or not so slightly) pervy Dad Next Door.
The danger with spoofing Christian fiction is that you risk attacking religion itself, and, while there’s sometimes validity in that, it doesn’t seem like mocking the sincerely held views of millions of people is really what Perrotta is going for here. In The Leftovers, I think he strikes a good balance, mocking sectarianism without perverting spirituality.
Instead of railing against religion indiscriminately, he exposes the hypocrisy behind organizing the plans of an all-knowing, all-powerful God into a series of charts, graphs and trite dogmas. Here’s what gets speared with Perrotta’s sarcasm-laced pen: cults of personality, perversions of faith, attacking people in the name of religion, and throwing out the core of the Gospel in favor of a few chosen, out-of-context passages. But some things are sacred — namely genuine faith, true friendship and familial love.
What makes this credible fiction instead of hollow cleverness is that Perrotta puts real story behind his sarcasm. The families in the book who lose their loved ones react to their pain by retreating from each other, sometimes emotionally and sometimes physically. It’s a compelling portrait of how we as humans deal with abandonment, often by repeating the process instead of confronting it and healing from it. The genius of The Leftovers isn’t Perrotta’s portrayal of religion, or his searing wit, however great they may be. It’s the humanity that comes through in his characters, and the way their story changes the way we look at our own lives.