I've read all of Walker Percy's books, some of them two or three times, with the exception of the non-fiction Message in the Bottle. (I consciously chose not to read it because I was under the impression that it was a fairly technical piece of philosophy and linguistic theory, but I've been told that I'm mistaken about that and should read it.) But it's been quite a few years since I read most of them. The most recent was Love in the Ruins, and that was ten years or so back. So what follows represents views formed ten to thirty-five years ago. I'm just going to list the books in order of publication, with a brief opinion.
First, a very quick biographical note on Percy, because his life is more directly and obviously relevant to his work than is sometimes the case. You can't read more than one of his novels without surmising that his main character is pretty similar from book to book and is most likely pretty similar to the author as well. Moreover, the novels are, as Percy himself said, novels of ideas, and the ideas are also connected to his life in a very straightforward way.
So: he was born in 1916, to an affluent family in an affluent suburb of Birmingham (Alabama). When he was thirteen, his father committed suicide, as had his father before him. When he was fifteen, his mother was killed in an automobile accident that may have been suicide. Thereafter he and his two brothers were raised by "Uncle Will," William Alexander Percy, actually a second cousin, a Southern aristocrat with significant literary talents and interests. Walker Percy went to medical school at Columbia, graduating in 1941. Not surprisingly, he had psychological troubles, and undertook psychotherapy around this time. In 1942 (I think) he contracted tuberculosis while working in a hospital. He spent several years recovering, during which time he did a great deal of reading and thinking.
In 1946 he married. In 1947 he and his wife ("Bunt"--very Southern) were received into the Catholic Church. He never got around to practicing medicine--family money, I suppose--but began writing, and in 1961 published his first novel, The Moviegoer. He published more books over the next thirty years and died in 1991.
One more thing before I look at the novels: Percy's scope is limited, and the Percy Protagonist (henceforth PP) is fundamentally consistent throughout the six novels. He is an upper-class Southerner in comfortable material circumstances but in psychological difficulties, sometimes quite serious. He feels himself disconnected and disoriented in the world, unable to participate in it as other people seem to do, finding himself miserably at sea in everyday life but exhilarated at times of crisis: he often feels bad when he should feel good, and feels good when he should feel bad. And he's trying to figure out what's wrong with the world, and what's wrong with him, all the while observing both carefully with a dry and whimsical humor, and a very sharp eye for the physical detail, not to mention for southern culture and manners.
The Moviegoer (1961) won the National Book Award. The PP here is Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker, fairly young and single.
The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.
The movies are more real to him than real life, but this is not the simple case of escapism that you might suppose. It's not that his life is miserable, and so he prefers fantasy to reality--his life is entirely pleasant--or that he's delusional and can't tell the difference--he is all too well aware of the difference. It's that reality and movies have swapped ontological status. The supposed actual has been emptied of its actuality, which is now possessed by the movies.
I consider The Moviegoer to be Percy's best novel in purely literary terms. It's not necessarily my personal favorite, but it is a beautifully polished gem.
The Last Gentleman appeared in 1964. It's a much longer and more rambling book than The Moviegoer. The PP is Will Barrett, and he's considerably more messed up than Binx Bolling.
He began to get things backward. He felt bad when other people felt good and good when they felt bad. Take an ordinary day in New York. The sun is shining, people live well, go about satisfying their needs and achieving goals, work at creative jobs, attend cultural attractions, participate in interesting groups. This is, by every calculation, as it should be. Yet it was on just such a day as this, an ordinary Wednesday or Thursday, that he felt the deepest foreboding. And when his doctor, seeking to reassure him, suggested that in these perilous times a man might well be entitled to such a feeling, that only the insensitive did not, etc., it made him feel worse than ever. The analyst had got it all wrong. It was not the prospect of the Last Day which depressed him but rather the prospect of living through an ordinary Wednesday morning.
He is a southerner living in solitary exile in New York City. Having worked for a while as a "maintenance engineer" running the heating and air-conditioning equipment at Macy's, he is, from the point early in the narrative where this fact is revealed, referred to as "the engineer." I seem to remember that there is some explanation for this, that it's an ironic way of describing his effort to assemble the pieces of his personality and the world around him. Or perhaps that's something a critic said. At any rate, it seems applicable.
It is a strange wandering story which, to tell the truth, I could not begin to reconstruct. It opens with Will at the eyepiece of a telescope through which he hopes to spot a peregrine falcon, but which instead brings into his vision a girl named Kitty. Kitty is also a southerner, and the engineer gets very involved with her and her family, the Vaughts: Sutter, a sort of nihilist who wants to kill himself; Val, a nun; Jamie, the youngest, who is dying. As you might imagine from that setup, the theological and philosophical stuff gets fairly thick, and the engineer ends up in Birmingham dealing with the entire Vaught family at Jamie's deathbed.
I've often named Love in the Ruins (1970) as my personal favorite of Percy's novels. As a novel it isn't the best, but it's certainly a lot of fun. Subtitled "The Adventures of a Bad Catholic At a Time Near the End of the World", it could perhaps technically be classified as science fiction. It is very much a novel of the 1960s, dealing with all sorts of topical matters: liberal vs conservative politics, race relations, sexual liberation, hippies. The PP is Dr. Thomas More, a Louisiana physician whose wife, now deceased, had taken up spiritual chicanery of the sort that would soon be called New Age-ism. He has invented a device called the ontological lapsometer, which measures how far a person has fallen (from grace?). Unfortunately he goes a step further and gives the device the capability of remedying that fall by tweaking the chemistry of the brain. The story which follows is preposterous but very entertaining, involving the intrusion of the, or perhaps just a, devil, who is very interested in promoting the wide distribution of the lapsometer. A motif which I believe is mentioned in the earlier books comes to the forefront here: the longing of a middle-aged man to escape the dreariness and decay of middle-class life and, with a younger woman, start not just a new life but a new society. (Yes, the recurrence of this motif does cause one to worry a bit for Percy.)
The first three novels are, in my opinion, his best. The remaining ones show a definite falling-off, though they're still very much worth reading if you like Percy, and to my taste much more worth reading that most fiction of our time.
Lancelot (1977) is a very dark book. The PP, the Lancelot of the title, is in prison, and for good reason. The first-person narrative is addressed to a priest who visits him in his cell. Lancelot is angry, disgusted by the emptiness and moral squalor of the modern world--if my memory is correct, there is some pretty effective satire of the combination of moral pretension and corruption which were making the entertainment industry so loathsome by the 1970s.
The Second Coming (1980) brings back Will Barrett, now twenty years older. He did not marry Kitty, nor did he join the Vaught family's Chevrolet dealership in Birmingham. He married a New York Episcopalian, became a corporate lawyer and made a lot of money, led a normal life, but is beginning to come apart again. His father, like Percy's, committed suicide, and this book deals with that trauma in a painfully direct way. His wife is, like Thomas More's, now dead--conveniently for the younger woman/new world dream--and Kitty has re-entered his life. But middle-aged Kitty is a somewhat crass woman, and it's not she but her schizophrenic daughter Allie for whom Barrett falls. The climax of the book is an elaborate plan set up by Barrett to force God to prove his existence. Leafing through the book now, I wonder if it might be better than I originally thought. But I also notice that it is, as I recalled, more harsh and crude than the first three. I doubt that I'm going to change my view that it isn't quite up to them, but I do want to re-read it.
Lost In the Cosmos (1983) is a delight and a triumph. Subtitled "The Last Self-Help Book", it's not a novel, but a unique mix of psychology, humor, philosophy, theology, and narrative. It is unfortunately not practical for me to reproduce as much of it here as I would like to in order to communicate to you the combination of amusement and enlightenment to be found here. I'll give you a bit of the opening.
LOST IN THE COSMOS: THE LAST SELF-HELP BOOK
The Strange Case of the Self, your self, the Ghost which Haunts the Cosmos
How you can survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians
Why it is that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos--novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes--you are beyond doubt the strangest
Why it is possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life...
Most of the book consists of a
Twenty-Question Multiple-Choice Self-Help Quiz to test your knowledge of the peculiar status of the self, your self and other selves, in the Cosmos, and your knowledge of what to do with your self in these, the last years of the twentieth century.
The twenty questions each constitute a chapter of the book, and to communicate the outrageous humor and acuity of these questions would require typing in the entire chapter. But each one begins with a statement of the general ground covered by the question, and here is one:
(9) The Envious Self (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self--though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill--in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces
There is also an "intermezzo of some forty pages" about halfway through, and these are among the most important forty pages in Percy's work. They lay out in a way that the average reader can understand "an elementary semiotical grounding of the theory of self taken for granted in these pages." It is the answer, or at least a crucial component of the answer, to the question "What is Percy driving at, really?" that plagues the reader of the novels. If someone who had never read Percy at all asked my advice, I would say "First get Lost in the Cosmos and read the semiotic primer that lies between chapters 12 and 13. Then take your pick of The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, and Love in the Ruins."
The Thanatos Syndrome (1987) was Percy's last novel. I have to say that I don't remember it very well. I may like it better than The Second Coming, but I'd have to read both again to be sure. If my very general memory is correct, it's different from all the other novels except Love in the Ruins in being about more than the psychology of one man. Both are more external, more social stories, with a stronger component of social commentary--not that it's absent from any of them, but it's more in the foreground in those two. And the PP is the same in both. In Thanatos, Dr. Thomas More returns. He has settled down and married Ellen, one of his three girlfriends in Love in the Ruins. He practices medicine in a reasonably conventional manner (apart from a short prison term, I think for selling prescription drugs illicitly) in a small Louisiana town. He discovers that something sinister is going on. Someone is tampering with the water supply, with the purpose of chemically shutting down those troublesome elements of the human psyche that cause envy, depression, anxiety, reckless love affairs, wars, and all the rest of it. There's actually an element of mystery story here, even a touch of thriller.
Signposts in a Strange Land (199) is a collection of short non-fiction pieces published over a period of 35 years or more. They're a mixed bag, but while I wouldn't say the book is essential reading for those who are not devotees of the author, many of them are worth reading anyway. And Percy enthusiasts most definitely shouldn't miss them.
To tell you the truth, writing this post has been, is, a frustrating experience. There is just far too much to be said in too little space and too little time. I have about 2500 words already, and I can think of a dozen more points that should be made. And although I've covered all of Percy's fiction I haven't really given you a very good idea of what it's like. I haven't communicated the sheer pleasure of reading him at his best. So I'm going to close by turning the lectern over to Percy. Here is the opening of Love in the Ruins:
In a pine grove on the southwest cusp of the interstate cloverleaf
5 P.M. / July 4
Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happend at last?
Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won't and I'm crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.
Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.
Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.
Undoubtedly something is about to happen.
Or is it that something has stopped happening?
Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.lS.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?
It is still hot as midafternoon. The sky is a clear rinsed cobalt after the rain. Wet pine growth reflects the sunlight like steel knitting needles. The grove steams and smells of turpentine. Far away the thunderhead, traveling fast, humps over on the horizon like a troll. Directly above, a hawk balances on a column of air rising from the concrete geometry of the cloverleaf. Not a breath stirs.
If that doesn't make you want to read on, I don't know what's wrong with you.
--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.