Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tom Perrotta: The Leftovers

Perrotta’s books have 
transferred well to film, but will this?

     Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (2011) tells of a small town three years after 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanishes in what some believe was the Rapture.  Though it explores a number of residents in that town during the span of
a year, the primary focus is on the Garvey family.  Kevin, the father, retires early and becomes the mayor.  Laurie, the mother, is so obsessed with the loss of her best friend’s daughter that she ends up joining the Guilty Remnant, which turns out to be a sinister cult.  Their children, Tom and Jill, follow very different paths through the novel.

     I don’t want to say much more than that because I don’t want to ruin the plot for anyone.  HBO, however, is adapting it to a new series starring Justin Theroux as Kevin, though he’s now the police chief, and there are sci-fi sequences and that cult will be far more creepy and violent (I’m guessing) than in the book.  The success of True Detective (2013) has effected what sounds like a major tonal shift in this work.  This could be to the detriment of Perrotta, who proves once again that he is an intelligent satirist of the American middle-class.  He also happens to be compassionate, which might be the reason that his books are liked, rather than acting as lightning rods.  He avoids the trenchancy of Martin Amis, but there isn’t the Jonathan Franzen buzz around his work either.  It’s a shame because he’s engaging, consistent, and interesting.

Matthew Broderick in Election
     Earlier Perrotta books such as Election (1998), which was published because Alexander Payne had optioned the manuscript to adapt as a movie, and Little Children (2004), were very successful on the screen.  Election featured Matthew Broderick’s best and bravest screen performance as well as an edgy Reese Witherspoon before she decided to become sweet and famous.  It was also an allegory for the apathy and star power surrounding American politics.  Todd Field elicited excellent work from Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, and Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children.  The subtext of the book and movie asked who were the children – the kids or their Gen X parents.  

Tom Perrotta
     Full disclosure:  I picked up The Leftovers from a Barnes & Noble sale table a year ago and thought about reading it, but kept putting it off until I saw the print promotions for the HBO show.  Once I started it, I was pulled along in a couple of days, which is very fast for me.  I hope the HBO adaptation picks up readers for Perrotta, but not at the cost of changing his vision of the American contemporary small town and suburban middle-class.

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