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Walker Percy

Walker Percy's Telephone Number:

An Essay

By Harry Henson

 

   Near the top of an ever lengthening list of regretfully missed opportunities in my life is my failure to try to  meet Walker Percy.

 As I was about to travel with a friend to New Orleans in the 1980s, another friend gave me the great novelist’s  telephone number and suggested we give him a call. He said Dr. Percy welcomed “intelligent” queries about his work, and might well invite us out to lunch, or to drinks in his favorite saloon. He did it all the time, we were told.

However, we were far too diffident to bother the great novelist, at that time probably America's leading writer. The number remained undialed in my wallet.

Percy died in 1990, and since then his influence seems to have gone into eclipse. His lifelong friend Shelby Foote is much better known now, as a result of his commentary on the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. In the decade after his death, Percy was the subject of two major biographies. The 1998 Samway biography  lists more than 30  critical works about Percy published up to that time, most of them hardcover, full-size studies.

 Today, except in Conservative or Catholic journals like Modern Age or Chronicles  or The Chesterton Review, it is rare to see even an essay about Percy.     

Although many writers suffer this lack of attention in the years immediately after their death, in the modern academic environment, Percy exhibits a number of what the politically correct would call “flaws.”

First, he was a white Southerner, and although he was quite critical about aspects of the Southern mythos and historical experience, he was not ashamed of being a Southerner, nor did he grovel apologetically about it. Another strike against him: Percy was a courageous man who did not limit his political involvement to the safe repeating of fashionable cliches in safe locales. During the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 60s,  Percy, believing the demand for equality just, did not remain silent -- at a time when speaking out ran real risks in the Deep South. He got himself into serious trouble with the Klan and the so-called “white citizens' councils,” receiving bomb threats and other promises of violence not only to himself but his family.

Percy compounded those sins by being a convert to Catholicism. This was, and still is, seen by some as  reactionary, backward looking, unprogressive, “un-American” in every sense of the word. What can you say about such a wretch?

What we can say is that any writer of real significance, who has anything to tell us that we need to hear, and can make us think in ways we would not otherwise have thought, will go against the grain in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. He will not think conventionally, which is probably why the America of the past generation has produced no new writers of any stature.

Now, some may believe that Percy's five novels are  dated because of  topical themes. A work like Love in the Ruins, written in 1970, deals with the seemingly imminent collapse of American society that many people confidently expected in those days -- Hippies running rampant, Black Panthers threatening revolution, every institution disintegrating, 500,000 draftees in an endless and useless Asian war.

For generations America had seemed to be a land favored by God. Now everybody had felt the lurch, the “sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars, as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history (away) from that felicitous privileged siding, where even unbelievers admitted if it was not God who blessed the USA then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and now the luck or the blessing is over. ...”

Forty years later, that insight remains relevant, although Percy did not conceive of the ending of American prosperity and freedom even if the country did appear to be on the verge of chaos.

Percy, if you will read Love in the Ruins closely, and see past the manic pace of the comic situations, lays out some of the mental habits that have led us to our current plight.  

  And he is very funny. Percy's continuing appeal is his comic genius. All of his novels, philosophically oriented as they may be, are comic.

And that is a fourth strike against Percy, in the eyes of some. He is witty. Ideologues are noticeably grim and humorless. As the old joke about the Germans went, we do not appreciate laughter here.

In Love in the Ruins, the protagonist, Dr. Thomas Moore,  has made a revolutionary discovery that may prevent the end of the world, or if it falls into the wrong hands, facilitate it. He confesses that what he fears most is that the end of the world may take place before he publishes his article in the proper scientific journal and wins the Nobel Prize.

 “What prospect is more unpleasant, the destruction of the world, or the destruction may take place before my discovery is known. .... Lord, grant my discovery may increase knowledge and help men ... failing that grant that it will not lead to man's destruction...failing that, Lord grant my article in Brain be published before the destruction takes place.”

 In the meantime, he has taken refuge in an abandoned strip motel with three girls who of course can't stand each other, one room stacked with cases of  Early Times bourbon and canned soup, another with the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s Great Books to read while the world falls, “beginning with Homer's first words, 'Sing oh, goddess”... and ending with Freud’s last words.....then we can start over -- until the Campbell's Soup and the Early Times run out.”

Between philosophical musings and resisting the devil in the form of a slick pharmaceutical salesman eager to get his hands on the invention, Dr. Moore also dodges snipers, hippies, black nationalist guerillas, and colleagues eager to commit  him as totally batty.  Although all Percy's novels are witty and interesting, and repay regular re-reading (although I must admit The Last Gentleman has always left me cold), probably his most remarkable achievement is Lancelot.

 The protagonist is Lancelot Andrews Lamar, last representative of an aristocratic Southern family.  The novel consists of a monologue delivered by Lance,  incarcerated in a madhouse, to a mysterious interlocutor who may be a childhood friend, completely imaginary,  or Christ himself. All three interpretations may be correct.

Lance has discovered by mischance his young daughter is not his child -- in fact has been fathered by the film director whose crew has practically taken over Belle Isle, his ancestral home. He is immediately shaken out of the comfortable coma in which he has lived his life, boozing all day while reading Raymond Chandler novels, “sit(ting) there in old gold green  Louisiana under the levee and (reading), not about General Beauregard, but about Philip Marlowe taking a bottle out of his desk drawer in his crummy office in seedy Los Angeles in 1933 and drinking alone. ....The only way I could stand my life in Louisiana where I had everything was to read about crummy lonesome L.A. In the thirties. Maybe that should have told me something. If I was happy, it was an odd sort of happiness.”

 Lance, like his namesake Sir Lancelot pursuing the grail, embarks on a twisted quest for what he calls a “search not for God but evil. … a purely evil deed. …If there is such a thing as sin, evil, a living malignant force, there must be a God.” In the process he uncovers proof of his wife's continued infidelity -- and his decision to act, and its shattering aftermath, lands him in the nuthouse.

 “Why are you always asking about love?” Lance demands of his silent auditor. Lance locates what he believes to be the malignant force he seeks; he  identifies it with modern American society and its sexual obsessions. He finds the continued existence of that society intolerable, and once he leaves the madhouse he intends to do something about it.

 “I'm going to tell you my plans for the future. There is going to be a new order of things. ... I will not tolerate this age ... and I will act....We will know each other as gentlemen used to know each other ... the same way General Lee and General Forrest would know each other at a convention of used car dealers on Bourbon street.”

It is at this point that unwary critics have been misled into believing Percy's voice is Lance's, that his character enunciates the author's own well-known dissatisfaction with Modernism and that Percy himself may even be advocating violence.

“I would have felt at home with Richard Coeur de Lion at Acre. They believed in a God who said he came not to bring peace but the sword. Make love not war? I'll take war rather than what this age calls love. Which is the better world....fornicating Happyland USA or a Roman legion under Marcus Aurelius Antoninus? Which is worse, to die with T.J. Jackson in the Wilderness, or live with Johnny Carson in Burbank?”

Percy obviously felt the strong attractions of the Southern stoic-heroic ethos, the knife- and gun-fighting world of Jim Bowie and Bedford Forrest and John Singleton Mosby, but he rejected it for the far more radical, and difficult, teachings of Christ and the Catholic Church.

Lance is actually a satanic figure like the one in Milton, and, like Milton, Percy gives him all the good lines, while knowing exactly what he is doing.

 Lancelot Lamar is so twistedly brilliant and articulate he seems to sweep all before him, and some critics seemed to grow frightened as they read his seemingly persuasive denunciations of modern America and all it stood for.

 They should have mastered their fear read on. Finishing his rant, Lance asks his hitherto silent listener if he has anything to tell him. The answer is the last word in the book:

Yes.

Percy was the last of the writers of the Southern Renaissance who astonished the literary world beginning in the early 20s and included such disparate figures as William Faulkner, Allan Tate, Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, Catherine Gordon and Katherine Anne Porter -- authors all marked by a powerful sense of place and strong, vivid characters, like Percy’s Lancelot Lamar.

Percy has had no successor. In an increasingly standardized country, with the flattening-out of personality that that seems to bring, he likely will not.

Harry Henson is a writer living in Richmond County.

 

 

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