REVIEWSrnL’Etranger Chez LuirnbyJ.O. TaternPilgrim in the Ruins: A Lifernof Walker Percyrnby jay TolsonrnNew York: Simon & Schuster;rnS44 pp., $27.50rnIsuppose that after William Faulknerrnand Eudora Welty and FlanneryrnO’Connor, Walker Percy (1916-1990)rnhas been for the last three decades thernmost widely read of Southern writers.rnHe has been known as a social observerrnas well as a novelist, and as a philosopherrnas well as a Roman Catholic. Andrnhe has been known particularly by readersrnof these pages, if only because hernwas given The Ingersoll Foundation’srnT. S. Eliot Award m 1988. He has beenrnknown, I mean to say, not only becausernof that award but also and even morernbecause of the reasons for which he receivedrnit. Jay Tolson has put the casernvery well;rnPercy was a thinker and artist atrnodds with his time, both with thernvarious and local Zeitgeists ofrnpostwar America and, more generally,rnwith the spirit and intellectualrntenor of what might crudelyrnbe called modernity. Percy,rnmoreover, was uncomfortablernwith the dominant ethos of hisrnculture, occasionally even at warrnwith it.rnIt’s all the more remarkable, therefore,rnthat such a shrewd and sympatheticrnstudy as Tolson’s should emerge of thernpolitically incorrect Percy—who oncernpointed out on the op-ed page of thernNew York Times that there is no scientificrndoubt about when life begins:rnat the moment of conception. Characteristicallyrnof Percy, his point was true,rnsimple, precise, and unwelcome thoughrnmuch needed. As with much that hernsaid, he was in a unique position tornsay it.rnWalker Percy was the product of onernof the most distinguished of Southernrnfamilies. He had in his background notrnonly a strong sense of noblesse oblige andrnof the moral imperatives of leadership,rnbut also a predisposition to melancholyrnand even suicide. And there was too thernimposing presence of his “Uncle Will,”rnWilliam Alexander Percy—poet, lawyer,rnbachelor, adoptive cousin, and authorrnof one of the best books about thernSouth, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollectionsrnof a Planter’s Son (1941). Much ofrnWalker Percy’s creative work was a responsernto and even a loving rejection ofrnthe tradition of the Percys, and of UnclernWill’s stoicism and aestheticism as well.rnPercy’s conversion was perhaps the mostrnimportant but not the only way in whichrnhe responded to his heritage and transcendedrnit.rnWalker Percy’s preparation for the careerrnno one could have foreseen consistedrnnot only in his training as a medicalrndoctor but also in his self-imposed studyrnof the Continental tradition of philosophyrnand fiction—the existential line ofrnKierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Camus;rnthe tradition of Jaspers, Husserl, Heidegger;rnthe line of logical positivists,rnThomists, Gabriel Marcel—you namernit, he read it. And he read it as a convalescent,rnas a man who had felt the brushrnof death’s wing: a father’s suicide. WorldrnWar II, tuberculosis. After his recovery,rnconversion, and marriage, he still hadrnnot found himself and pushed onrnthrough false starts toward The Moviegoerrn(1961). This first book won nationalrnacclaim, and his path was set,rnthough it was not without travail. Evenrnso, Percy continued with his diagnosticrnwork—his fictional and existentialrndemonstrations that despair is the preparationrnfor revelation. I sometimes thinkrnthat The Last Gentleman (1966) is hisrnbest book. Love in the Ruins (1971) isrnlighter and lesser, but also a much neededrnsatire of a nation that had undergonerna self-administered lobotomy in thern1960’s. Lancelot (1977) is a dark and intriguingrnexperiment that was misreadrnwhen it came out—a strong work, andrnan exorcism of some personal demons.rnThe Second Coming (1980) and ThernThanatos Syndrome (1987) have their incidentalrnfelicities, but they are a fallingoffrnfrom Percy’s best days.rnJay Tolson’s account of Percy’s life isrnan accessible and admirable chroniclernof an off-beat career. Tolson has managedrnto understand a novelist who was arnphilosopher, a Christian who was arnsatirist, a conservative who danced withrnliberalism, and a moralist who was funny.rnAfter all. Southern aristocrats whornstudy German phenomenologists andrnwin the National Book Award their firstrntime at bat don’t come down the pikernevery day. Southern conservatives whornconvert to Catholicism and are activernin the civil rights movement don’trneither. Jay Tolson has surprised at leastrnone reader with his nimble excursionrnthrough a minefield of conflictingrnideologies, confusing philosophies, unlikelyrnassumptions, and quirky personalities.rnHis graceful negotiation ofrndecades of turbulence, confusion, andrnpassion is a lucid tour of change and folly,rna useful review of modern history,rnand a pleasure to read.rnOne of those pleasures comes inrnthinking of Tolson’s life of Percy spatiallyrnrather than chronologically. It is arnvivid recreation of places: Greenville,rnMississippi; Birmingham, Alabama;rnChapel Hill; New York City; SaranacrnLake; New Orleans; Sewanee, Tennessee;rnCovington, Louisiana; thernSchwarzwald in Germany; the Americanrndesert. Another pleasure is discoveringrnthe biographies—of WilliamrnAlexander Percy, of Shelby Foote, ofrnWalker Percy’s wife and children andrnbrothers—within the biography. ActuallyrnTolson’s book is so good that I startedrnto wonder: there must be some flawrnthat a critic can pick at. The accountrnof Gone With the Wind on page 129rnmisses that novel’s irony altogether—Irnthink it’s the only time we catch Tolsonrnnapping.rnBut this reader’s reflexes notwithstanding.rnWalker Percy is the center ofrnattention, and he was a man of ideas.rnJay Tolson excels in his exposition of thernthreads of continuity in Walker Percy’srnlife and in his accounting for the dialecticrnof life and art as Percy lived it. Hernhas shown Percy in the round and as hernrelated to his family, his community,rnand the world of ideas in his time. Andrnhe has shown him as an individual engage,rneven a knight of faith, one whornmaintained his integrity to the end andrnwho sustained the tradition of familyrnhonor in a wholly new way.rn32/CHRONICLESrnrnrn