The Faith of a Southern Novelist

PILGRIM IN THE RUINS:
A Life of Walker Percy
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By Jay Tolson
Simon & Schuster. 544 pp. $27.50

 

LOST GLORY is Southern fiction’s great theme, but as Jay Tolson makes clear in his solid, respectful biography, Walker Percy had particularly good reasons to feel a sense of loss. Born in 1916 in Birmingham, the scion of a distinguished clan, he lost his father to suicide at age 13; two years later his mother died mysteriously, perhaps also a suicide. He was adopted by his bachelor uncle William Alexander Percy, a sad, solitary Mississippi planter and poet whose influence helps explain Percy’s lifelong fatalism, aloofness, pride, and racial paternalism, not to mention his tendency to write about sex as if it were an exclusively modern iniquity.

If Uncle Will was no ladies’ man, Percy was no people person. After becoming an M.D. and marrying, he lived quietly on an independent income in small-town Louisiana. Human ambiguity troubled him; he had, Tolson writes, “an almost innate sense that he should not be burdened … by the offensive humanity of other people.” He never practiced medicine, disliking its “sloppiness” and preferring pure science. Yet no science, he came to feel, held the key to ultimate truth. “As a scientist,” he later wrote, “I knew so very much about man, but had little idea what man is.” Nor did he have anything to replace the “absolutes, certainty, authority” that Uncle Will represented.

And so he searched. Kierkegaard led him into the Catholic Church (whose role in his life as a replacement for the planter elite is neatly suggested in his 1971 novel Love in the Ruins, when Tom More fetches a plantation bell to ring the angelus at church); and a reading of Susanne Langer helped turn him into an amateur semiotician who saw the human gift of naming as a mystical power inexplicable by physical laws alone. In a number of essays, he sought to unravel its workings and to score points against modem society’s superficiality and godlessness. But essays weren’t enough. “Nobody reads these things,” he complained to his wife, Bunt. “I need to put some of the things I’m saying into a novel so that people will read them.”

That novel was The Moviegoer (1961), which sold poorly but beat out Catch-22 for the National Book Award. Reminiscent of Camus and Sartre, Percy’s best novel concerns Binx Bolling, a New Orleans isolate whose film fandom betokens his alienation and spiritual emptiness. For all the despair and cynicism, Percy holds out hope, attempting, in his words, “a modest restatement of the Judeo-Christian notion that man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim.”

In his five succeeding novels, Percy rings changes on this theme, with formal variations (one novel is a recit; another is post-apocalyptic sci-fi). Angry and misanthropic, the novels depict an America of nominal Christians who, Percy explained, “no longer understand themselves … as ensouled creatures under God.” Reviewing Lancelot (1977), a monologue whose mad hero is to Percy what An American Dream’s Rojack is to Norman Mailer, Andre Dubus noted that Percy’s novels confront “the forces which make it so difficult for us to make moral choices and live by them” and asks: “What is one to do on an ordinary afternoon? . . . What is a human being for?”

His protagonists’ verdicts on today’s sexual attitudes can be brutal. “Make love not war?” says Lancelot. “I’ll take war rather than what this age calls love. . . . Which is worse, to die with T.J. Jackson at Chancellorsville or live with Johnny Carson in Burbank?” Harsh words, but no harsher than anything Percy himself says in the posthumous collection Signposts in a Strange Land (1991), wherein he denounces “the great whorehouse and fagdom of America.” Gays get far rougher treatment here than Klansmen, for whom he manages considerable Christian sympathy.

YET HE is more frequently on target than not. An avid soap-opera fan who once had a passionate conversation with Eudora Welty about “The Incredible Hulk,” Percy can be droll about pop culture, wittily noting how it debases religion and art. But his treatment of it often seems glib — the parody broad, the ironies easy. Though he described his novels, moreover, as being concerned with “diagnostics and therapeutics,” he is too often the detached health professional, too rarely the empathic G.P. Like him, his heroes tend to be white, male, well-born, and Southern; Tolson acknowledges that this “southern chauvinist . . . cannot help depicting Americans from other regions as one-dimensional, or very close to it.” Ditto women, blacks and gays. Tolson bristles at the charge that Percy’s novels contain no women, but it’s a fair criticism: Though ostensibly concerned with “psychological man,” these novels are less about people than about ideas.

But then, Percy the Catholic was less a congregant than a lone prophet. Though vexed by modern foibles, he disdained attempts to rescue dogma from ancient error.” He couldn’t allow the church to change, explains a priest and friend: It was his “anchor.” Yet his faith enters his fiction self-consciously and self-righteously: Though Lancelot properly deplores many clerics’ refusal to mention sin, Percy — who understood faith by way of patrician stoicism and Christian charity as a form of noblesse oblige — errs in the other direction, concentrating on sin more than salvation and on others’ sins more than his own. To be sure, he once admitted that he cared little for his fellow man and hadn’t “done a good work in years.” But while making light of his own failings, he uses Catholicism to rap others for theirs.

All in all, a fascinating soul, who in his novels, as Robert Coles has said, went “to the bottom of his own confusion.” But Tolson, who provides much of the material needed to fathom Percy, doesn’t follow up all the clues, draw all the connections. He seems more interested in paraphrasing Percy’s essays than in probing his inmost depths; and he’s defensive, explaining away virtually every negative review as personally motivated. {Tom Disch, he writes, panned Percy “with the fury of an angry former Catholic.”) Nor does Tolson seem to realize that here, as in Percy’s novels, none of the women rises off the page. Even Bunt comes off as a stereotypical helpmate, a shadowy background figure; not to know her is not to know a whole side of Percy — who, illuminating as this portrait is, remains at the end something of an enigma.

WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD