Readers first met Lee Pefley as an old man who returns to his hometown resolved to chastise public nuisances with a stick. Tito Perdue’s first novel, Lee (1991), took some reviewers by surprise: the elegantly crafted naiveté seemed to strike a balance between Borges and (to my mind) Kenneth Patchen. What some of them seemed to miss is the obvious fact that Lee was the most reactionary fictional hero since Ignatius in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Like Ignatius, Lee is a reader of old books but not the Latin fathers. It is the Greeks who inspired Lee with a vision of what human life might be like if we ever concentrated on growing finer instead of more human beings. Lee’s historical model is the Spartan king who in old age went through the streets beating the people he met—a terrible offense in a society where only slaves, not free men, may be beaten. What Lee has grasped (and so few of us seem to know) is that most Americans in the 1990’s are slaves by choice and deserve no better treatment.
Lee is a bookworm who has built his personal collection by robbing stores and libraries wherever he goes. The terrible old man, foiled in an attempt to steal an edition of Salvian defaced by a bar code strip, tries to check out a volume of Herodotus. The librarian insists upon clearing his application and checking his references. “Do I get the card?” he asks, and when she replies, “Absolutely not,” he tells her: “I’m thinking of beating the sh-t out of you,” and proceeds to push her to the floor, pinning her chin with his cane. “Succubus! Alright, just tell me this—and this is as easy as it gets for you—who was Galla Placidia?” Receiving no reply, he asks, “Goddamn it, you’ve been abiding here all this time with all these books, and you’ve learned nothing. Nothing!”
Giving the librarian a second chance (to identify Prosper of Acquitaine), he leaves her with a threat: “Now hear me well: I’m returning someday, maybe a year, maybe tomorrow, and you had best know something. You mark me?” Imagine the effect on librarians, teachers, journalists, book reviewers, clergymen, and other professional know-nothings, if they believed that some day they would have to face such judgment administered by a learned man with a cane.
We also run into Lee at the end of Opportunities in Alabama Agriculture (1994), as the protagonist’s young grandson, the “most serious and glum of all his descendants.” Grandfather, who parlayed good spelling into a teaching job and marriage to a propertied wife, offers little Leland some honey, which he describes as “knowledge-producing” and tells the boy he can see his whole future but refuses to reveal it. Opportunities is Perdue’s strangest book so far. Although the setting is Alabama in the period between Reconstruction and World War II, it is an Alabama (at least in the first part) of an early geological age, unsettled by volcanoes and populated by stragglers, vagabonds, and eccentrics. It is a parallel universe Alabama, whose connections with the real state and time only serve to reveal the strangeness of the place.
In The New Austerities, the earth has aged by the time Lee, in his 50’s, decides to leave New York, where he works in front of a computer terminal, going “through . . . insurance applications, one by one . . . to see to it that all those who stood in need of coverage were not vouchsafed any.” His days are spent in the agony of trying to avoid confronting the vermin with whom he works and rides the train. His colleagues find joy in management sessions, where they draw up targets and goals and mission statements; where they confess their personal failings and promise to work on them: “Look at me,” says one of the managers, “I used to have negative feelings about lots of things. . . . But I worked at it, Lee. And now I’m like you see me to be.”
Lee’s only pleasures, apart from stealing books and dreaming of revenge, come at night when, after a few stiff drinks of vodka, he can look out at the night and listen to the horrors of the post-apocalyptic world: America in the 90’s. His barely (and not always) suppressed violence seems almost justifiable, since it is aimed at people who have sloughed off the humanity they were born with. Christian charity requires us to treat New Yorkers as if they were men and women with souls; reality teaches a different lesson. Poor Lee cannot even find the women, with their rain-plastered hair, alluring. As he remarks, later in the book, when he is asked about New York women: “There are no women . . . I got the last one myself. No, the women have all turned to men now.”
If the women have turned into men, the men are “slime in thousand-dollar suits.” Meeting one of them on the subway, Lee lifts his wallet without much effort and realizes that “the man knew he was being robbed, and yet feared to do anything about it.” This, in the greatest city of “a country that might almost have taken up where the Greeks left off. And where,” he asks a Southern redneck, “where is the American High Culture now?” The answer is “Not gone . . . Not begun.”
Lee and his wife make their way out of New York in a car on which he has made one payment, headed back to see if there is any life left in the South. Even there, the signs of degeneracy—”a man with a modem in his lap”—are everywhere. The only hope for the South is to expel “all those who are not reactionaries” and to start “A new Civil War—this time we win.” The way to begin, he suggests, is to dismantle the South’s cities and ship them to New York, where they will not be noticed.
Satire, whether in verse or essay, is virtually a lost art that survives only in novels. Making fun of the political or cultural opposition is mere propaganda, the art of the baboon who defecates into his hand and hurls his poisonous ordure at the people staring into his cage. The heart of satire is a serious criticism made from within a society, a criticism in which not even the critic is spared. It is not a trivial art: Aristophanes, Juvenal, and Moliere are serious artists, nearly as serious as their contemporaries Sophocles, Tacitus, and Racine. Satire is inherently reactionary, because the only standards by which a society can be judged come from the past. Radicals and Marxists realize this, and turn inevitably to Golden Age myths of equality; so do Christians and classicists, whose minds are forever walking in the streets of Athens or Jerusalem; only liberals are too stupid “to lift their garbage-glutting snouts up from the trough” long enough to wonder if life was always like this.
The rural South of his childhood has sorely decayed, but “back in the cities they would be slicing each other by now, chewing, sucking, envying, and going to cocktail parties.” For Lee the Golden Age is not the splendors of the antebellum South, but the harsh and unremitting toil of his grandfather’s generation. Coming across a photograph album, he sees the very house he is living in, the very window he is staring out of, but they are new and fresh. He looks at a picture of “three soiled men . . . his people, farmers and mail carriers and the like who, starting from nothing, had not only brought off an Age of Integrity, but had thought to take pictures of it as well.” His hatred evaporates as he contemplates such pictures, in which “every human error was redeemed, by the exercise of hardness and lovely gorgeous poverty.” Labor omnia vincit, improbm or, to use the tongue that Lee would prefer: krupsantes gar echousi theoi bion anthropoisin.
Neither conservative nor liberal, but a reactionary radical, Tito Perdue has written some of the best satire on contemporary America, and he has put his criticism in the form of novels which can hold their own with the best postmodern fiction.
[The New Austerities, by Tito Perdue (Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers) 218 pp., $20.00]