“Death must be distinguished from dying, with which it is often confused. “
—Rev. Sydney Smith
The rarest entity in American writing is the novelist with ideas—that is to say, one who is capable of writing the ideological novel. Of course, the term is enough to put a chill on what is in fact the novel of intelligence—even, one might add, the novel of intellectuality. The supreme master of the form was Henry James, obviously, whose like we have not seen since his death in 1916. Otherwise, I fear, the American novelist is almost wholly glandular. In serious writing, the most likely practitioners of the form are probably Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. It may be said that John Updike has ideas, however pretentious, but which are all expressed in a deftly controlled glandular mode. Saul Bellow may be our most intelligent novelist and Walker Percy our most purely intellectual. Lest it be charged that we have left them out of something yet again, most women as novelists are almost wholly and everywhere glandular.
It is also peculiar to the case at hand that the Southern novelist is, on the whole, much more intellectual than his northern counterpart. This may clearly be seen, moreover, if we compare Norman Mailer as the prototype northern novelist with Walker Percy as the prototype Southern novelist. While the former is simply anarchistic, the latter has a firmly moderated sense of the history of ideas. Walker Percy, not only as someone with both a thorough medical background and a passionate interest in semiotics, has written essays which are rather too technically abstruse even for the average well-informed reader. He has, on the other hand, written essays which should become classic examples of the genre in our own time. In short, the reader may well know when Walker Percy is an accessible writer and when he is not. He is, of course, most accessible in the novels in which he presents the ideas that are most important to him. This is especially so in view of the complexity of his thought which has evolved since the publication of his first novel, the prizewinning The Moviegoer (1961), which brought him immediate recognition.
Though some may contend that The Moviegoer was Percy’s The Sun Also Rises—that is to say, his most original and perhaps most singular piece of work—it is necessary to identify the body of his novels since then, to suggest why this body of work will no doubt become increasingly important. The titles are as follows: The Last Gentleman (1966); Love in the Ruins (1971); Lancelot (1977); The Second Coming (1980); and currently The Thanatos Syndrome (1987). Two pairs of these novels deal with same main characters: Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming; Dr. Thomas More in Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome. Also, Percy does not play lightly with such obvious references from history as Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the ultimate layman at bay, and the great English divine Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) in Lancelot.
What emerges from a reading of Percy’s novels since The Moviegoer is that Walker Percy has clearly presented to us, though surely not as his primary intention, the most injured Christian psyche in the whole range of Anglo-American fiction at the waning of the century. The subtitle for Love in the Ruins is a bitter delectation, “The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World,” with its possible echoes from George Bernard Shaw’s invidious little tract The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God (1932). The loss of traditional values that caused Evelyn Waugh to die of a broken heart, though medical records won’t show it, has turned a survivor like Walker Percy into the sole minimalist practicing the craft of the so-called Catholic novel today—minimalist, because Percy deals with essentials of belief that are stripped of all the trappings of mere religiosity.
Percy is far from being a master storyteller. Pages are not turned all that eagerly, except in scenes which are notable for both the tensile strength of their extended dialogues and the tensions of characters seemingly reduced to ideologues on the brink of self-destruction. Scene reading is in fact the secret of reading Walker Percy, as it is in reading almost any novelist, especially when a given novel itself may on the whole be judged a failure. And yet few failed novels of first-rate writers are totally irredeemable. Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous The Garden of Eden (1986), for example, contains some of the most exquisite scenes he has ever written even though the sense of déjà vu may all but overwhelm the already initiated reader. The point is nevertheless important.
One of the most powerful scenes pits the beleaguered psychiatrist Dr. Tom More against the equally beleaguered Father Simon Smith, who is ensconced in a 100-ft. fire tower in the Louisiana woods and won’t come down. (Remember St. Simeon Stylites?) Literally speaking, it is Dr. Tom More’s job to get to the bottom of Father Simon’s foolishness.
The Thanatos Syndrome is a wonderfully complex novel and has as many reflective surfaces as an expertly cut and polished diamond. Walker Percy can pack pages into vignettes of a few paragraphs. His delineations have an often devastating effect. This may readily be seen in some of the minor characterizations, such as the ex-Jesuit Kev Kevin and ex-Maryknoll nun Debbie Boudreaux, first married, then of course separated. Debbie says of Kev: “The trouble with you is you’re still a closet Jesuit.” Kev says of Debbie: “The trouble with you is you’ve turned into the worst kind of maneating bitchy feminist.” After counseling both of them. Dr. Tom More muses sadly:
I thought they did better, looked better, felt better as Father Kev and Sister Therese in the old days, and as priest and nun, than as siddha Kev in his new soft Maharishi voice and a NOW Wicca Debbie in her stretch pants. If you set out to be a priest and a nun, then be a priest and a nun, instead of a fake Hindu or a big-assed lady Olds dealer who is into Wicca—this from me, who had not had two thoughts about God for years, let alone sin. Sin?
So much, then, for the Kevs and Debbies of the new progressive church. Where once was solid doctrine, the options now are “in favor of belief in community, relevance. growth, and interpersonal relations,” etc. But even these beliefs will be abandoned. Debbie will become a bookkeeper in her father’s Nissan agency and Kev will write successful paperback novels about nuns and ex-nuns, priests and ex-priests. Sound familiar?
At the end, meanwhile, Father Simon will have come down from the fire tower to reach a kind of working agreement with himself and the world. He regains a quiet and unobtrusive level of spiritual confidence—seeing in the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin in Yugoslavia, for example, more evidence for the need of faith rather than anything either spectacular or even notorious. The aesthetic fact remains, however, that the major imprint left by Walker Percy’s novels, and especially by this one, is the sense of a thoroughly damaged human nature. Everything in the book is made up of damaged goods, the whole world out of whack, as if redemption itself had been reversed or put on hold. This is problem enough for the moralist, God knows, but where does it leave the novelist? At this point, Percy has produced a brilliantly disturbing set of novels. And yet, we may ask, wither now Walker Percy?
[The Thanatos Syndrome, by Walker Percy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) $17.95]