Tom Perrotta is often called a satirist. It’s a nice, neat label, as square-cornered as a pigeonhole. But it’s just not true.
"The classical definition of satire is that you’re exposing the folly of human behavior,” Perrotta says during a call to his home in the Boston suburb of Belmont. Perrotta lives there with his wife, the writer Mary Granfield, and their two teenaged children. “For me there is no position where it is possible to be a human and not be implicated in the folly of human behavior. I always feel I’m implicated in that folly.”
Perrotta supposes he earned the satirist label from the movie Election, which starred Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick. He wrote the novel on which the movie is based. “Election is one of the great satires in recent film history,” Perrotta says. “It was much more satirical than the book. Just compare Tracy Flick in the book with what Reese Witherspoon does with her in the film. The book is a comic novel but it’s not a satirical novel. The film pushes out! Because Election first brought me to the attention of most people, I’m in this box: People think of me, they think of Election, and they think of the movie.”
Perrotta’s boldest novel to date puts a whole new spin on apocalyptic anxiety after a Rapture-like event.
Not that Perrotta has any objections to the movie. “I really loved the movie, myself. I still do. It really holds up too, and it’s been really influential in all sorts of ways. I think the success of the movie basically changed my life. I had published a few books and I was struggling to find an audience. I felt a real difference in the aftermath.
“I used to have that moment where I’d be introduced at a party and say, oh, I’m a writer, and people would say, have you written anything I’ve read? And I’d name my books and I’d get that terrible blank look. Now I could say, well, there was this movie with Reese Witherspoon, and people would light up,” Perrotta recalls. “It felt like a big difference that my name was attached to something people had positive feelings toward. The other concrete thing it did was allow me to find work as a screenwriter, which allowed me to stop teaching and really solidified my sense of myself as a professional writer.”
Still, the satire label that has trotted beside Perrotta like an over-friendly stray dog does not come close to encapsulating his estimable gifts as a writer. Or, as Perrotta says wryly, “Certainly what I’m doing now is very far away in terms of tone from that movie.”
That’s for sure. Perrotta’s early novels were set in working-class New Jersey, where he grew up and developed a passion for writing that eventually took him to Yale. But since his novel Little Children (2004), “there’s been a shift in the suburban territory that I write about” that both comically and tenderly reflects the attitudes and personal dilemmas of residents of the more affluent middle-class suburb where he now lives.
Not only that, his use of language has matured. Reminded that he once proclaimed that he wrote in the plain American English tradition of Ernest Hemingway, Perrotta laughs and says, “If you go back to Bad Haircut (1994) you’ll definitely see more of the Hemingway influence. I mean those sentences were just so short! But even then I was using that shortness for comedy in a way that Hemingway didn’t. Probably since Joe College (2000) the sentences have gotten looser and more complex in terms of syntax. So I’ve moved away from the Hemingway impulse. But I have to say that I have not moved away from the idea that literary fiction should work the way that popular fiction works, in terms of being a pleasure to read, with a story that moves swiftly.
“I have always wanted to be democratic,” Perrotta says. “My parents didn’t go to college and a lot of people I grew up with are not -‘intellectuals’ in the graduate school sense. I never wanted to write for a self-selected group of people who see themselves as literary. I want to write for anybody who is interested.”
All of these maturing impulses meld in near-perfect harmony to bring us Perrotta’s newest, most audacious and best novel to date, The Leftovers.
Set in the leafy suburb of Mapleton, The Leftovers opens on Departed Heroes’ Day of Remembrance and Reflection, three years to the day after a Rapture-like event has caused millions of people all over the world to disappear in an instant. In reaction, some people, like Laurie Garvey, join a monastic penitential cult called The Guilty Remnant, whose members dress all in white, smoke cigarettes as an article of faith and ghost about Mapleton to remind people that the end is near. Others, like Laurie’s college-age son Tom, follow the prophet Holy Wayne, a former UPS delivery van driver, and his Holy Hugs Movements. But many, like Laurie’s husband Kevin, the mayor of Mapleton, struggle to lead normal lives and keep their children—in Kevin’s case his teenage daughter Jill—from going off the rails. The action of the novel unfolds over nine months, as the Garvey family and their friends and acquaintances struggle to make sense of a world that is in most ways much the same as before but is also profoundly different.
Perrotta, who devours literary biographies and hardboiled detective fiction rather than literary novels while he is composing his own books, admits that he was thinking about books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while writing The Leftovers.
“Obviously The Road was on my mind. But I think this book is almost the opposite of The Road. The landscape of The Road is utterly altered in the physical and in the human/social sense. What I wanted to do was create a world where the landscape wasn’t altered at all physically or socially. But psychologically it’s completely different. So whatever strangeness there is, is hard to locate, aside from the people dressed in white who are smoking, I mean. There are some changes that are visible and troubling. But in most cases it’s just much more a sense of ‘I can no longer trust the nature of the world,’ and that creates this feeling of anxiety.”
Another huge difference between The Leftovers and The Road is Perrotta’s gift for comedy. “I certainly found subject matter that is hard to treat comically. Loss is not easy to treat in a comical way,” he says with a laugh. Yet Perrotta is such a keen observer of human psychology—and human foibles—that many moments in The Leftovers are laugh-out-loud funny. “I think the comedy in this works best when it’s organic to the situation,” Perrotta says. “There’s comedy in incongruity. This juxtaposition of almost clinical grief with this insistence on living a normal life does create certain kinds of very dark comedy.”
But Perrotta’s comedy is colored by great empathy for his characters. “Certain characters open up over time. It’s very satisfying for me as a writer to live with these characters long enough to get a fuller sense of who they are and how they fit into the story. They just seem to get more agency somehow to tell you a little bit about who they are.”
Among The Leftovers’ most appealing characters are the smart, vulnerable teenager Jill and her Goth friend Aimee. “I’ve written a lot about my own teenage years and coming of age. But with this book I suddenly realized I had to write the Jill sections from Jill’s perspective, and this time I was filtering that through my daughter and her friends, not through my own personal memories.”
Perrotta notes, “I had this idea and it seized my mind—but for a long time I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. It’s probably good for a writer to feel that way, to feel like you’re delving into messy, interesting, important subject matter without exactly knowing why. And I was starting to feel my identity was almost too solid. Like people talked about me in a certain way. Like they knew what a Tom Perrotta novel was. I wasn’t comfortable with that. You start going into the old bag of tricks too much.
“Obviously some things in this book will be familiar—the setting and the subject matter will remind some people of other things I’ve written. But I think on the most basic ground level, I’ve forced myself into unfamiliar territory.”
It’s true. In this brilliant novel, he has definitely gotten himself a whole new bag of tricks. If you’ve never read a Tom Perrotta novel, now’s the time.