I don’t really need an excuse to recommend the novels and non-fiction essays of the late Walker Percy of Covington, Louisiana and the world. But I have one anyway, as Saturday is the 100th anniversary of the birth, in Birmingham, Alabama of one of the most original and thought-provoking writers of the 20th century (or of any other, come to that).
It’s not easy these days to find fiction that re-pays the reading time. In the popular thriller/mystery/crime genre there are a few intelligent and skilled practitioners, but far more dross (the sorting of these being a fine topic for another column). In post-war literary fiction, the pickings are even slimmer, the mainstream novel having fallen on hard times. The post-everything world is stony ground for the serious story teller. But those looking for novels that entertain while providing insights into the Vanity Fair we call life can do little better than Percy, who manages to be philosophical while maintaining a sometimes eccentric but coherent narrative. And, as a bonus, he can be very funny.
Percy wrote only six novels, the first, The Moviegoer, came out in 1961 when Percy was 45. His final novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, was published in 1987, three years before Percy’s death from prostate cancer, just days short of his 74th birthday.
The Moviegoer got Percy’s career off on the right foot, winning the National Book Award for fiction. The book’s hero is a detached and slightly bewildered 29-year-old stockbroker who finds life in the movies more real than that around him. He enjoys his ordinary life of making money, romancing his secretaries, living in the Gentilly suburb of New Orleans, and patronizing the local movie houses. But he knows something is wrong. The search that Binx Bolling goes on, with his disturbed cousin Kate, is nothing less than seeking out what it means to be an individual human being, to live and to die in a specific place.
The above question would not seem to be a difficult one in our era of science resplendent and with so much knowledge about. So many swell theories of just about everything. But we’re in one of those periods when the standards and understanding of one era, Christendom in the case as the Western world, no longer organize the lives of most people. But new standards and understandings have yet to be established (and the fractured way we’re going may never be).
In one of his essays, Percy tells of the man Kierkegaard described “who read Hegel, understood himself and the universe perfectly by noon, but then had the problem of living out the rest of the day.” Just so. The scientifically trained Percy — he earned an M.D. degree from Columbia University, but gave over the profession to become a writer — always appreciated the beauty of science and its many gifts, and was ever the diagnostician in his literary work. But he was always keenly aware of the limitations of scientific knowledge and of the life questions it can in no way answer and should not be called on to try.
As diverting as The Moviegoer is, my recommendation for those not familiar with Percy who can be persuaded to give him a try is to start with 1971’s Love in the Ruins, Percy’s most accessible, most intellectually comprehensive, and most amusing novel. The protagonist. Dr. Thomas More, a psychiatrist with his own problems and a fondness for the sauce, is forced into service as GP in a futuristic suburb called Paradise Estates. Far less than paradise, this toxic locale reflects, in somewhat exaggerated form, all the political, religious, and cultural cracks and fissures of the sixties that it followed. In fact, the very cement of society is cracking with vines growing through them. The inhabitants, most of them decent but a bit off-plumb, don’t seem to notice.
Through all this, More/Percy must find what the place is of the individual, and the Christian believer (which Percy was) in all this unravelling. The trip, and the search, are worth the intelligent reader’s time and effort. Some reviewers describe Love in the Ruins as a political satire, and on one level it is. But it’s far more than that. All of Percy’s novels, without being at all preachy or didactic, help the attentive reader sort first things. (As God is my witness, some relentlessly secular reviewers even miss the religious significance of Dr. More’s name.) In fact, they function as a warning to those who invest too much effort, emotion, and faith in politics, which are important, but not the most important thing, and when all-consuming can be a cul-de-sac.
Percy’s fiction, it should be noted, does take a bit of effort. His novels are an acquired taste that not everyone can or wishes to acquire. But those who do are glad of it. His non-fiction essays, equally thoughtful and rewarding, even when dealing with the same themes as his novels, are accessible to all. (The best of these are collected in Signposts in a Strange Land.) In them Percy plumbs some of the same questions. What is Man all about? How should we live? But he also is not above just having a little harmless fun in pieces on New Orleans in the sixties and the joys of drinking bourbon.
I hope I’ve been persuasive. If so, happy reading.