I really love the Best American collection(s) because of how much they vary from year to year. The collection is so dependent on the guest editor of the year’s tastes, and I like thinking about how the editor’s picks relate to their own work. Sometimes there’s no overlap, and sometimes the collections surprise you by being really, really good (I didn’t expect to like Salman Rushdie’s as much as I did), or not so good (I didn’t love Steven King’s). I was excited to read Tom Perrotta’s because I love his writing and style and I had a hunch that his collection would feature some gems. I was, fortunately, right! This was one of my favorites out of the Best American collections I’ve read so far. Perrotta says: ”I like stories written in plain, artful language about ordinary people. I’m wary of narrative experiments and excessive stylistic virtuosity, suspicious of writing that feels exclusive or elitist, targeted to readers with graduate degrees rather than the general public, whatever that means.” The stories are very much in that vein–not experimental or esoteric, just plain old good writing.
Ruth is a single mom and a health teacher at the local high school, who recently got into big trouble for implying that sex can be an enjoyable act. As a liberal feminist, she’s annoyed by the conservatives who are, as she sees it, imposing their religious views and warped perspectives on sexuality on the school, town, and country as a whole. On the other side of the political/moral spectrum is Tim, a soft-spoken ex-addict who has found Jesus and believes it’s his duty to spread the word of God throughout the community. The two clash and come together over the course of the novel, grappling with simultaneous mutual attraction and opposing views on just about everything.
The Leftovers takes place a year or so after what is known as the “Great Departure,” a Rapture-like event which involved thousands of normal people across the world disappearing suddenly, vanishing into thin air. The focus is on the Garvey family: Kevin, Lori, and their two children, Tom and Jill. Tom has run away to follow a pseudo-prophet named Holy Wayne; Lori has joined the Guilty Remnant, a religious movement that involves isolation from society and a vow of silence; former good-girl Jill has fallen in with a bad crowd and is failing out of school. Nora, the other main character, is a woman who lost her husband and two children, and finds her life spiralling out of control. We follow them as they grapple with the aftermath of the event, trying to center themselves in a world that no longer makes sense.
I’m ambivalent about this book. On one hand, it was an easy read, the story is original, the writing is clever. On the other hand, it didn’t leave much of an impression. I saw the movie years ago, and in many places throughout the book I found myself thinking about the movie to supplement what was missing.
The book is written as a series of journal-like entries from the main characters. While this style gives different perspectives on the central event in the book – a high school presidential election – too often the entries blended into each other. And some entries were so short there wasn’t enough to them to really fill out each character. That’s where I kept retreating to the movie.
The story revolves around the presidential election at Winwood High. Mr. McAllister is a well-liked, passionate teacher who oversees the election. Tracy Flick is the ambitious overachiever who wants to be president because she truly believes she is superior to the other students and candidates but also because she wants to pad her resume. Paul Warren is the likable jock who runs against her at Mr. M’s recommendation. Paul’s campaign manager is Lisa Flanagan. Lisa had a secret, short-lived affair with Tammy Warren, Paul’s sister, who is also running for president.
There are other story lines that give some depth to the characters. Mr. M is having marital trouble, Tracy is rebounding from an affair with a teacher, Paul and Lisa are mixing business with pleasure. But the crux of the story is the election and the lengths the characters will go to to win or see that someone else doesn’t.
As with any movie adaptation there are differences in the book. In the movie Tracy is portrayed as slightly more villainous. In the book she’s precocious and insecure, a little more pitiable. Of course, the ending is also different, and I suppose the ending you prefer is directly related to how you feel about Tracy and Mr. McAllister.
I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it, but for me it was just too slight to leave much of an impression.