Tom Perrotta rules suburbia. It’s been the backdrop for all of his books, including his new novel, The Leftovers (St. Martin’s) even while he explains that he never made a decision to write about it.
‘‘It just so happened that for most of my life I’ve lived in the suburbs,” he says. “I write about kids growing up, I write a lot about schools and parents, and all of my experiences with those things have been suburban experiences. And they’re two distinct cultures—I think urban childhoods and schools are quite different than suburban ones. I just happen to know one and not the other. My wife and I left New York when she got pregnant—we just thought it would be really hard to stay in the city.” Perrotta lives now in suburban Massachusetts with his wife and two children.
The Leftovers takes place in the suburban community of Mapleton, but this time there’s no love affair at the local pool or high school adversaries but an apocalyptic event: the “sudden departure” of millions of people from the Earth with 100 Mapletonians gone to only God knows where. “I always like the idea of a novel as a village,” Perrotta says. “The small suburban town is the unit I think in.” For Perrotta, though, this book is “totally different.” He hung on to some familiarity by setting it in the ’burbs, but then took a major leap. “I’ve been a committed realist and except for Bad Haircut (his debut with Bridge Works, 1995). I’ve written about the world as I’m seeing it at the moment I’m seeing it, but this book is futuristic in a sense—it’s an alternative history novel, apocalyptic, postapocalyptic, sci-fi, dystopian.”
One thing follows another in the arc of Perrotta’s work. We’ve seen his characters through Yale (Joe College), the creative guy living with his parents at 31 (The Wishbones), and his breakthrough novel, Election (with a film version that put him clearly on the path to Hollywood; who will ever forget Tracy Flick or that girl she reminded us of?). “Election was also a kind of transitional book for me,” Perrotta says. “It was published third, but written before Wishbones. It was a coming-of-age, but based on public sources— the presidential election of 1992—and it began the second phase of my career. I think of Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher, and The Leftovers as public novels rather than private, semiautobiographical books.”
The Leftovers came partly from the evangelical culture Perrotta immersed himself in when he was writing The Abstinence Teacher. “I did a lot of reading of the Bible and became fascinated with the idea of the rapture. It’s pretty wild. I hadn’t heard of it until I was in college. Growing up Catholic there’s not a lot of apocalyptic stuff. I have the kind of mind where I would definitely cop to being agnostic, but I’m always willing to entertain the other position, another point of view. And I started thinking, well, what if it happened?” What intrigued Perrotta was the idea of the devastating event of “the rapture” and then seven years of tribulation. He thought of shattering moments, like a war beginning or 9/11, which feel like the beginning of a new reality, but then history absorbs them.
Perrotta set himself the task of seeing what the world would be like after this calamity of the “sudden departure” through the lens of his suburban characters: the new mayor of Mapleton, his wife, his children. “In some ways, I realized that the world is changed forever, but in other ways it’s surprisingly what it was. People don’t like to get pushed out of the narratives of their lives.” Perrotta’s rapture is not the Christian rapture. He wanted, he says, to make it much more problematic by having it “devoid of any theological meaning, having it be random, like a natural disaster.” He was borrowing the concept of the rapture to investigate secular questions even though “part of what I’m writing about is religious impulse as a response to widespread trauma.”
The premise of The Leftovers is ambitious but also ordinary. “There’s no vampires or nuclear weapons,” Perrotta concedes. “The Leftovers is an extension of the everyday mystery of what happens when people die. They disappear on us and we don’t know why, and we just have to keep on going.”
Ruby Cutolo is a freelance writer and editor.