There are things – like your post-Christmas credit-card bill, or any given episode of Toddlers and Tiaras – that really get you thinking about the end of the world, an event that seems to get scheduled as often as it's cancelled. If it ever does come, it might not be all bad: Even the most dour apocalypse-watchers think there'll be survivors. Problem is, you might be one of them.
And then you'd be like one of the mournful characters in Tom Perrotta's interesting but flawed new novel, in which citizens of a small American town grapple with the sudden and unexplained disappearance of many friends and relatives. Experts in the book attribute this worldwide disaster to the fulfilment of biblical prophecy, but nobody's quite sure: "It was a Rapture-like phenomenon, but it doesn't appear to have been the Rapture."
Over the course of novels such as Little Children and Election, Perrotta has proved himself a thoroughly skilled observer of communal behaviour, a tradition that continues here. His portrait of a town in the throes of mass grief is sensitive and precisely measured. And yet this diet Rapture tastes a little undercooked, because it's hard to sob for the vanished when you feel they might come back at any time. It's also strange how, only three years after the catastrophe, people have largely stopped wondering why it happened. Wouldn't the gaping absence of Jennifer Lopez and Adam Sandler be cause for a limitless search party?
Had Perrotta committed himself more strongly to a vision of the End (as they do in the evangelical Left Behind novels, or in Michael Tolkin's underrated 1991 film The Rapture), his punches here would have landed with greater force. Had he chosen a more conventional form of tragedy, like an earthquake or a flood, he could have concentrated on his real subject – bereavement – without leaving irritating questions in the reader's mind. But he didn't, and that's a shame.
Even so, loss is certainly something he writes about well. His characters respond in ways that are believable, inventive and (unsurprisingly) quasi-religious. Tom Garvey leaves his college studies to follow a shady insta-prophet called Holy Wayne, while his teenage sister, Jill, engages in a regular Spin the Bottle game fuelled less by lust than by the need for ritual. Their mother, Laurie, has abandoned her family to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members dress in white, mortify themselves by smoking and harass those who seem to have moved on with their lives.
Then there are the best characters, incipient lovers who brighten the book each time they appear: Laurie's husband Kevin, the town's industrious mayor, and Nora, a young mother who's lost her entire family. Nora's beautifully affecting nightly routine is to watch her son's favourite cartoon over and over, diarizing each instalment as a kind of sugar-coated memento mori. This book is often difficult to read, featuring as it does a multitude of people blunted by despair. But Nora's grief journey is something to see; it's funny, angry and insightful. In her darkest hour, she's still first-rate company.
As is Perrotta, whose capacious sense of humour is locked here into a series of priceless set pieces. He can't exactly make jokes in this kind of environment, but he can certainly suggest them: A waiter approaches, with mouth-watering plates of food that turn out to be someone else's; a boy stabs his school-mandated copy of The Scarlet Letter with a steak knife, in order to "kill it before it kills him."
Perrotta is also one of the few novelists courageous enough to grapple with the encroachment of religious fundamentalism in American life (his previous book, The Abstinence Teacher, dealt with Christian opposition to sex education). This is tough for a secular writer to do, since the descent into cheap and bitter satire can be very tempting. But to treat the phenomenon with artistic seriousness is to risk endorsement, and the mockery of godless readers.
And so he finds himself finds himself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, giving us a book about a religious calamity that may have happened, but didn't really, because, of course, how could it? To some, the line he treads will feel just right: knowledgeable and appropriately grave, without being loony. But others will feel that in giving us only a little bit of Rapture, he deprives us of a lot.
Cynthia Macdonald is a Toronto novelist, journalist and critic.