A Lost Artrnby Thomas FlemingrnThe New Austeritiesrnby Tito PerduernAtlanta: Peachtree Publishers;rn218 pp., $20.00rnReaders first met Lee Pefley as an oldrnman who returns to his hometownrnresolved to chastise public nuisancesrnwith a stick. Tito Perdue’s first novel, Leern(1991), took some reviewers by surprise:rnthe elegantly crafted naivete seemed tornstrike a balance between Borges and (tornmy mind) Kenneth Patchen. Whatrnsome of them seemed to miss is the obviousrnfact that Lee was the most reactionaryrnfictional hero since Ignatius inrnJohn Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy ofrnDunces. Like Ignatius, Lee is a reader ofrnold books but not the Latin fathers. It isrnthe Greeks who inspired Lee with a visionrnof what human life might be like ifrnwe ever concentrated on growing finerrninstead of more human beings. Lee’srnhistorical model is the Spartan king whornin old age went through the streets beatingrnthe people he met—a terrible offensernin a society where only slaves, notrnfree men, may be beaten. What Lee hasrngrasped (and so few of us seem to know)rnis that most Americans in the 1990’s arernslaves by choice and deserve no betterrntreatment.rnLee is a bookworm who has built hisrnpersonal collection b robbing stores andrnlibraries wherever he goes. The terriblernold man, foiled in an attempt to steal anrnedition of Salvian defaced by a bar codernstrip, tries to check out a volume ofrnHerodotus. The librarian insists uponrnclearing his application and checking hisrnreferences. “Do I get the card?” he asks,rnand when she replies, “Absolutely not,”rnhe tells her: “I’m thinking of beating thernsh-t out of you,” and proceeds to pushrnher to the floor, pinning her chin with hisrncane. “Succubus! Alright, just tell mernthis—and this is as easy as it gets forrnyou—who was Galla Placidia?” Receivingrnno reply, he asks, “Goddamn it,rnyou’ve been abiding here all this timernwith all these books, and you’ve learnedrnnothing. Nothing!”rnGiving the librarian a second chancern(to identify Prosper of Acquitaine), hernleaves her with a threat: “Now hear mernwell: I’m returning someday, maybe arnyear, maybe tomorrow, and ou had bestrnknow something. You mark me?” Imaginernthe effect on librarians, teachers,rnjournalists, book reviewers, clergymen,rnand other professional know-nothings, ifrnthey believed that some day they wouldrnhave to face such judgment administeredrnby a learned man with a cane.rnWe also run into Lee at the end ofrnOpportunities in Alabama Agriculturern(1994), as the protagonist’s young grandson,rnthe “most serious and glum of all hisrndescendants.” Grandfather, who parlayedrngood spelling into a teaching jobrnand marriage to a propertied wife, offersrnlittle Leland some honey, which he describesrnas “knowledge-producing” andrntells the boy he can see his whole futurernbut refuses to reveal it. Opportunities isrnPerdue’s strangest book so far. Althoughrnthe setting is Alabama in the period betweenrnReconstruction and World War II,rnit is an Alabama (at least in the first part)rnof an early geological age, unsettled byrnvolcanoes and populated bv stragglers,rn’agabonds, and eccentrics. It is a parallel-rnunierse Alabama, whose connectionsrnwith the real state and time onlyrnserve to reveal the strangeness of thernplace.rnIn The New Austerities, the earth hasrnaged by the time Lee, in his 50’s, decidesrnto leave New York, where he works inrnfront of a computer terminal, goingrn”through . . . insurance applications, onernby one . . . to see to it that all those whornstood in need of coverage were notrnvouchsafed any.” His days are spent inrnthe agony of trying to avoid confrontingrnthe vermin with whom he works andrnrides the train. His colleagues find joy inrnmanagement sessions, where they drawrnup targets and goals and mission statements;rnwhere they confess their personalrnfailings and promise to work on them:rn”Look at me,” says one of the managers,rn”I used to have negative feelings aboutrnlots of things…. But 1 worked at it, Lee.rnAnd now I’m like you see me to be.”rnLee’s only pleasures, apart from stealingrnbooks and dreaming of revenge,rncome at night when, after a few stiffrndrinks of vodka, he can look out at thernnight and listen to the horrors of thernpostapocalyptic world: America in thern90’s. His barely (and not always) suppressedrnviolence seems almost justifiable,rnsince it is aimed at people who havernsloughed off the humanity they werernborn with. Christian charity requires usrnto treat New Yorkers as if the’ were menrnand women with souls; reality teaches arndifferent lesson. Poor Lee cannot evenrnfind the women, with their rain-plasteredrnhair, alluring. As he remarks, laterrnin the book, when he is asked about NewrnYork women: “T’here are no women . . . Irngot the last one myself. No, the womenrnhave all turned to men now.”rnIf the women have turned into men,rnthe men are “slime in thousand-dollarrnsuits.” Meeting one of them on the subway,rnLee lifts his wallet without much effortrnand realizes that “the man knew hernwas being robbed, and yet feared to dornanything about it.” This, in the greatestrncit’ of “a country that might almost haverntaken up where the Greeks left off. Andrnwhere,” he asks a Southern redneck,rn”where is the American High Culturernnow?” The answer is “Not gone . . . Notrnbegun.”rnLee and his wife make their way out ofrnNew York in a car on which he has madernone payment, headed back to see if therernis any life left in the South. Even there,rnthe signs of degeneracy—”a man with arnmodem in his lap”—are everywhere.rnThe only hope for the South is to expelrn”all those who are not reactionaries” andrnto start “A new Civil War—this time wernwin.” The way to begin, he suggests, is torndismantle the South’s cities and shiprnthem to New York, where they will not bernnoticed.rnSatire, whether in verse or essay, isrnvirtually a lost art that survives only inrnnovels. Making fun of the political orrncultural opposition is mere propaganda,rnthe art of the baboon who defecates intornhis hand and hurls his poisonous ordurernat the people staring into his cage. Thernheart of satire is a serious criticism madernfrom within a society, a criticism inrnwhich not e’en the critic is spared. It isrnnot a trivial art: Aristophanes, Juvenal,rnand Moliere are serious artists, nearly asrnserious as their contemporaries Sophocles,rnTacitus, and Racine. Satire is inherentlyrnreactionary, because the only standardsrnby which a society can be judgedrncome from the past. Radicals and Marxistsrnrealize this, and turn inevitably tornGolden Age myths of equality; so dornChristians and classicists, whose mindsrnare forever walking in the streets ofrnAthens or Jerusalem; only liberals are toornstupid “to lift their garbage-gluttingrnsnouts up from the trough” long enoughrnto wonder if life was always like this.rnThe rural South of his childhood hasrnsorely decayed, but “back in the citiesrnthey would be slicing each other by now.rn34/CHRONICLESrnrnrn