Walker Percy's fame is a puzzle. Of course his novels are delightful, witty, full of unsuspected gems of language, plot and character. But the culture that feted him was one that he severely if obliquely—for the most part—criticized.
Perhaps any artist feels out of it, something of an alien in his native land. This may even be a condition of creativity. What we all take for granted is suddenly shown to us as fresh and new and almost eerie. But there is more than this generic outsidership with Walker Percy. He was a Catholic writer pursuing his trade in an increasingly secularized, even neo-pagan, environment. Imagine a contemporary of Nero writing a best-seller called Quo Vadis. Percy wrote during the crumbling of another empire of sorts, Christendom, yet thousands of readers who did not share his judgment on the times read him avidly.
From The Moviegoer in 1961—it won a National Book Award when that still meant something—to The Thanatos Syndrome in 1987, Percy's novels seemed to fit into the flow of American fiction. A story about a young man whose life is defined by the movies he sees has been told by many authors and Percy could be thought simply to be putting his personal stamp on an established form. The Italian movie Cinema Paradiso tells a version of this story from a completely inner vantage point; the hero has no outlook apart from the movies he has seen. Their sentimentality is his. But with Percy there was already something deeper. His young man might have been watching reports from elsewhere, figures cast on the wall of a cave, a prisoner awaiting one greater than Plato as his liberator.
There are lots of ways of feeling unanchored in the contemporary world. Evelyn Waugh's Scott-King's Modern Europe expresses this alienation in political and cultural terms. There is that level in Walker Percy as well. But increasingly—as indeed in Waugh—it is the writer's religious faith that provides the lens through which the world is seen.
It is possible to classify Percy as a Southern writer. Like most Southern writers he was both receptive and wary of the designation. But there is nothing like the residual memory of an enormous defeat to cleanse the eye with which one views the world. However secular his story might seem, the Southern writer conveys the truth that we have here no lasting city, that we should not put our trust in princes, that men are evanescent as grass.
Percy himself invoked the difference between himself and Flannery O'Connor. She held the view that the Catholic writer ought not introduce his Catholicism into his fiction, certainly not thematically. She herself is found in grotesque and often half-mad marginal religiosity intimations of orthodoxy. Walker Percy is no J.F. Powers, although a priest or two show up in his novels. In many ways he is a Catholic novelist in the sense that he lived at a time when the common morality became identified with Catholicism because no one but the Pope defended it. Percy's own defense of natural law takes the form of showing that anyone who honors it must seem mad. A fortiori, the believer is best represented by the holy fool.
Signs of the Times
The mark of the times in which we live is that we are all but forced to think of ourselves in terms of the sciences. This influence, Percy felt, had produced a radically incoherent world view, something that follows from the radical incoherence of science. This incoherence is displayed in his novels and discussed in his non-fiction works. Let's look at its imaginative expression first, concentrating on Love in the Ruins (1971) and its quasi-sequel, Thanatos Syndrome, published 16 years later in 1987.
“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 happened at last?”
Thus begins Love in the Ruins, the voice that of the narrator whose name we will learn later on. It is July 4 in an unspecified future year. Things have fallen apart. Part two moves back to July 1, and then the story progresses chronologically to the July 4 where it began. The ending is five years later, at Christmas. Percy tells us in little bursts what happened, what went wrong, but this is not science fiction. Expect no elaborate descriptions of disaster. Tom More is a doctor and he has invented a machine, the More Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer, a stethoscope of the spirit. It is the inner life, the religious life, that is on stage, and the scenery is local, even though the disaster is national, perhaps global. Above all, the novel is funny. Madcap comic, witty, bon mot, and sustained and set-scene funny. It is as if it hurts too much to cry and laughter is the best therapy.
Percy was writing in the often mad days that followed Vatican II. The vignettes that give us what has happened to that Church are hilariously au point.
With consternation—and madcap humor, Southerner Walker Percy chronicled the rise of the Culture of Death before it had a name
Dr. Thomas More is no saint, God knows, but he is a sure and amusing guide through the apocalypse. Well, not quite apocalypse. After all, there is a sequel, and Tom More returns in The Thanatos Syndrome which gives us the spiritual geography of what John Paul II would call the culture of death. Percy, himself a doctor by training, though he never practiced because he fell ill with tuberculosis, links developments in our country to the Nazi doctors of the Third Reich. The humor has not faded, but the response to it altered. Perhaps readers of Love in the Ruins misread Percy as a critic of religion, especially Catholicism. His pro-life stance in The Thanatos Syndrome lost him a lot of his audience.
Novels are first of all stories, imaginative reproductions of people like the reader and writer. They have to engage and hold us on the most elemental level of all—what will happen next?-if they are going to do anything else. Some novelists, like E.M. Forster, lamented the need to provide a story as the carrier of what they want to say, but the story is the main thing that the novel tells. A writer can also write non-fiction if he wants to, but that will be direct communication with the reader, not the oblique plotted symbolic showing, not telling, that a story is. Walker Percy wrote non-fiction as well as novels.
We find there the same whimsical style. In photographs, Percy looks like a carpenter's ruler, not quite folded up. His head tips naturally leftward. The smile is genuine, but closemouthed. It is the man in the photograph that we get in the essays, straight. There are three non-fiction books: The Message in the Bottle (1975), Lost in the Cosmos (1983), and the posthumous Sign Posts in a Strange Land (1991). The first two are sustained connected efforts, one on language, the other called “The Last Self-Help Book,” the funniest book Percy every wrote, deadly serious. The third volume brings together pieces that appeared all over the place. “Why I am a Catholic” is a kind of Percy credo and “If I had Five Minutes with the Pope” a delight. The parish priest is a hero for Percy, in real life, and in the two novels I have been emphasizing.
What kind of Catholic was he?
One answer would be to point out that he agreed to have his name included on the board of Crisis. He was in many ways an old fashioned Catholic, the kind that innovators and iconoclasts held in contempt. Looking over his books again, I am reminded of Evelyn Waugh. Here are two of the most important Catholic novelists of our century, both converts, who became enamored of the understated worship of the Church, the Latin liturgy, and admired priests who knew what they were doing, and by and large, who did it well. “What else is there?” was Percy's initial answer to the question why he was a Catholic. He meant it. Only the faith enables us to make sense out of ourselves, out of the world, out of obscure and mysterious drama of human life. Theologians began to water down the faith, to “dissent,” liturgists chased decorum from the sanctuary, currying favor with the enemy began. Things might be better now if voices like those of Waugh and Percy had been heeded. Latin spoke even to those who did not understand it; now the language of the liturgy has a bumper sticker resonance.
Novelists, needless to say, are not catechists. But it occurs to me that the almost matter-of-fact way that Cardinal Ratzinger accepts the possibility that the influence of Christianity in the wider society will decline even more, and believers find themselves forming little pockets of resistance to the culture of death, a scandal to some and foolish to the rest—that bleak future is given cheerful imaginative expression in Percy's novels.
His prosaic expression of the idea was given to some seminarians. “There is no more Christendom and it may be just as well. Thus, it may very well come to pass that you, graduates of St. Joseph's, if you should become parish priests, will be practicing your ministry in a world very different from the one we grew up in.”
Railing Against the Times
Percy advised against altering the discipline of the priesthood. And he admonished lay people to provide more support for their priests. He despised Catholic novelists who went on about how awful it had been to grow up Catholic. He suspected that their real problem was the familiar one of human weakness. In general, he was against attempts to tailor the faith to a zeitgeist that seemed to have come howling out of hell. In a letter to The New York Times he likened the theory behind the abortion culture to the one invoked to justify the hideous practices of Nazi doctors. The letter was not printed. He wrote another. That was not printed either. The Good News is not fit to print.
Perhaps Percy finally wore out his welcome with the wider culture, but I don't think so. Get someone laughing and he may come to see the tragic side. There are books about Percy now, a particularly good one by Jay Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins. Tolson also edited the letters between Percy and his lifelong friend Shelby Foote. Percy dedicated Love in the Ruins to Foote. The letters show us how much of a Southerner Percy was, yet how unlike Foote, who was as well. Percy must have wished the shoe of faith would fit his friend, but Foote had the skepticism of the age, and three wives, and held himself excused. But one discerns in his letters a grudging and ever growing recognition of Percy's depth. From time to time, he seemed almost to patronize him, but he got over that. In many ways, Shelby Foote was the reader Percy wrote for. Yet Foote's tribute to Percy in St. Ignatius Church in New York Oct. 24, 1990 suggests that he imperfectly understood his old friend. Or maybe he was just kicking against the goad. Aman who thinks Dostoyevski can be understood if his theology becomes a historical curiosity might think that the faith and the philosophy are not essential to Walker Percy's genius.
Or did Foote mean that most readers can respond to Percy the artist even if they cannot go that long mile into the simple faith that was its ultimate source. And of course not every believer will cotton to Percy either. But to share his faith and savor his art is to have the best of two worlds.
Ralph Mclnerny is director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind., and editor of Catholic Dossier.