Walker Percy, the guy on the far right of our banner, died twenty years ago today. His death was in its way a victory. He’d contracted tuberculosis in the early 1940s and spent much of his young manhood in sanatoriums–where he read vociferously, especially the existentialists, and especially Søren Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel, who converted him to Christianity and provided him with his vocation as a writer. That the tuberculosis didn’t kill him, that he died at the age of 73 of prostate cancer demonstrates a victory over the disease that haunted him his entire life.
I did my master’s thesis on two Percy novels (The Last Gentleman and its sequel, The Second Coming), and I’ve read nearly every word he had published, the only author, I think, I can say this about. (I actually haven’t read his book of correspondence with Shelby Foote.) I love Percy’s thought, and so I feel comfortable saying that he’s not a great novelist–his books are poorly plotted, and he does not, let us say, have a way with dialogue.
In a rare moment of cattiness, Frederick Buechner, a writer with whom he shared a great deal in common philosophically, said that all his characters talk the way he imagined Walker Percy to talk. Buechner undershoots it. If you read Percy’s non-fiction or his interviews, you will quickly learn that his own voice is actually much more interesting than those of his characters. Readers who are new to Percy’s oeuvre should not start with the fiction, and least of all should they start with his debut and most famous novel, 1961’s The Moviegoer–unless they already have a taste for the plotless and dull French novel.
I usually recommend that people head first to 1983’s Lost in the Cosmos, a parody of self-help books and a masterpiece of dialectical thought. I bought my copy used, as I buy most of my books. The former owner, I soon discovered, actually answered the “quiz” questions inside the book–the gag is that most of the answers are equally correct, that you’re not supposed to be able to answer. Cosmos is funny and light, and yet it’s still heavy–it also contains passages of fiction that are as or more effective than any of his novels proper.
You could also start with Signposts in a Strange Land, a posthumous collection of his published essays and articles on various topics–really every topic you could think of–including an angry letter to the New York Times asking why they didn’t publish a previous letter he’d sent in. A portrait of the artist as an angry old man.
And Percy was angry. The “Politics” status on my Facebook page has for several years now read “Walker Percy conservative or John Updike liberal,” but “conservative” is not really the right word for Percy’s political thought. Mostly he distrusted human beings, especially in terms of the politics of his novels. His best novel, 1971’s Love in the Ruins, envisions a rather boring apocalyptic future in which the Republican and Democratic parties have splintered so much that each merely parrots idiotic buzzwords continually. The people who identify themselves with these parties are unable to talk to one another and unable to notice that the world may be about to come to an end. Sound familiar?
Percy would no doubt be horrified for me to point out that he was in fact Dr. Walker Percy, having earned his medical degree only to contract tuberculosis and never practice it. What this means, though, is that, much like those of Karl Jaspers, Percy’s critiques of the scientific establishment come from a place as much within that establishment as without it. Percy distrusted not so much science as what gets called scientism, the mystical power science earns among laymen–especially once it gets mixed with the remnants of Judeo-Christian morality. Again, sound familiar?
Percy was, in the end, a diagnostician for his times–and for our times, which occasionally seem to be the 1970s magnified by a power of 40. One turns to his work, fiction and nonfiction alike, to learn about oneself and one’s fellow Christians. We find in books like Lancelot and Lost in the Cosmos the shattering predicament of Modern Man (and Woman)–the things that tear us apart and the things that keep us together for no reason. This article from First Things suggests that Percy’s star is fading (it also makes the same case I do regarding the fiction and the nonfiction, but this was my independent opinion long before I read the article), and that is regrettably true. Do your part and read him as soon as possible.