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Walker Percy and the Search for Meaning

By W.L. Prehn

What are you reading this summer? Have you tried a novel by Walker Percy (1916-90)? Percy may not make his way into the established pantheon of 20th-century American novelists. Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, O’Conner, Bellow, Updike, Roth, and a few others are secure. But Percy was a great American writer, and a great Southerner, and interest in him is waxing, not waning.

Percy’s novels are The Moviegoer (1961), The Last Gentleman (1966), Love in the Ruins (1973), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987). Two others were never published. The Moviegoer won the National Book Award, and really everyone should read it. It is small but great. The Last Gentleman is a tour de force and popular; The Second Coming is probably Percy’s most perfectly made work. He also wrote a few magazine articles, submitted to interviews, and collected some papers in two non-fiction books.

I had never read Lancelot before this spring. Many fans consider it his weakest effort. His lifelong friend Shelby Foote noted in an interview that Percy was furious with The New York Times Book Review because Christopher Lehmann-Haupt dismissed the book as uninteresting and even racist. Percy believed the reviewer misunderstood the novel: it turns the Grail story on its head and is a 20th-century tale about a quest for evil and sin “in times like these when everyone is wonderful” (Lancelot, p.138). This sort of topic seldom interests the editors of The New York Times Book Review.

Lancelot and Love in the Ruins may not be as perfect as his other novels, yet both contain profound wisdom and some of his most brilliant writing: perfectly rendered dialogue between Deep South peoples; truly rendered scenes of place; and prose that often rises to poetry. “[T]he thick chablis sunlight humming with bees” (Ruins) is hard to beat. And the protagonist of Lancelot shares his plan for the future with his old friend Percival:

It is simply this: a conviction and a freedom. The conviction: I will not tolerate this age. The freedom: the freedom to act on my conviction. And I will act. No one else has both the conviction and the freedom. Many agree with me, have the conviction, but will not act. Some act, assassinate, bomb, burn, etc., but they are the crazies. Crazy acts by crazy people. But if one sober, reasonable, and honorable man should act, and act with perfect sobriety, reason, and honor? Then you have the beginning of a new age. We shall start a new order of things. (Lancelot, p. 156)

As for the “racism,” a question worth raising about any American, Percy was writing about the South from the inside, not the outside. Like any other artist, novelists must be given the liberty to tell it like it is from the ground and not as Mississippi or Louisiana would be if they were in New York City. When asked whether Faulkner’s attitude about race was enlightened, Percy replied that people need to remember that Faulkner was not writing a protest but stories about real people in the real world of his South. Percy said to William F. Buckley Jr. in 1972, “The novel can humanize [for outsiders] the life people are really living.” The point for the artist is to get it right in the art.

Percy wrote in Esquire that he wanted his readers to laugh. If we are not always laughing out loud, the novels are definitely comic literature. In each work, Percy shows himself wonderfully ironic and comfortable with gentle, wise satire. It is clear in the novels that many things about 20th-century America amuse and disturb the author. The protagonist of each novel is a bemused, alienated American man who sees the surrounding affluent society as rather empty and lost. “The world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man” (Love in the Ruins, p. 383).

The single Persona behind all six novels is a curious fellow of high and solemn thoughts. He is happy to tell you about his deep desires. He is a detached and objective fellow. He has gained some scientific training and has read great books. He is from a particular region and proud of it. He depends on no other person for his livelihood (it appears he is either independently wealthy or has figured out how not to need money). He seems naïve, then makes arresting observations about human nature. He pokes fun at almost every sort of American and American culture generally, and at himself. He observes that something is not quite right with the world, that society might be sick. In all six novels, the Persona wonders if he is the problem, if he is not a little broken or dysfunctional, but the plot is resolved by finding out that the surrounding culture is more likely in need of repair. He assumes that the Southerner knows how to live, lives somewhat outside the mainstream of American culture, and thus can pass judgment on that other culture. And, not to be overlooked: the Persona likes a good bourbon whiskey.

The protagonists are always male. This is what the artist knew best. These Southern males are pretty decent people but they are never Puritan; that would have been impossible for Percy. When Jay Tolson was beginning the biography of Percy, the writer went way out of his way to convey to Tolson that his subject was no saint and he didn’t want anyone thinking otherwise.

None is spared from Percy’s sage and critical eye. In The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling wonders about the flight of Americans to the beautifully contrived suburbs. The novel was written in the heyday of postwar American optimism. Binx observes that “these new houses look haunted. Even the churches out here look haunted. What spirit takes possession of them?” Percy’s writing is often prophetic in this manner, and his protagonists discover deeper meanings in the cultural artifacts around them. Binx wonders about many things, like the surprising quiddity of place and time, which he suddenly “tasted like okra.”

Percy’s novels are almost picaresque. He would never want the reader to assume he’s writing hagiography, though Percy would remind us that there are saints and they are not always recognized by the public. Percy has something to say. He wants to get the reader’s attention quickly. The first lines of Love in the Ruins put us hiding with the protagonist in the bunker of a lovely golf course on a lovely day. We are hiding from a sniper concealed in the cypress swamp.

Readers of Percy’s biography discover that he faced much inexplicable pain as a child. He lost first his father then his mother at an early age. Both Percy’s father and paternal grandfather shot themselves in midlife. These violent misuses of the human will or spirit haunted the novelist the rest of his life. Suicide hovers round each of the novels. Is this the way to take control of one’s life and act againstthe “everydayness” Percy hoped to transcend? This is the suggestion in The Second Coming. The American virtue of self-reliance takes here a dark turn.

If we take the six novels as a whole, there is the suggestion that self-reliance ought logically to result in suicide. Hence Percy was searching for another remedy. He knew in his craw that there was an answer.

Percy’s nonfiction reveals that, after medical school at Columbia and while convalescing with tuberculosis in New York, he thoroughly studied the existentialists, notably Kierkegaard and Camus, and found Dostoevsky’s penetrating, realistic portraits of human nature congenial. One of Percy’s daughters recently told a journalist that her father was fascinated with Dante’s Divine Comedy. I believe that the six novels taken together are a kind of Deep-South version of that story wherein we follow Percy to hell and back.

Early admirers of Percy such as Robert Coles recognized that the novelist was on a vigorous quest or search. Humanity’s search for understanding, meaning, and purpose haunted Percy and is a major theme of his oeuvre. But let us be clear: the post–World War II objective of affluent Americans to achieve “self-realization” while enjoying toddies at the clubhouse is a project of which Percy had an abiding suspicion.

This is the first of three reflections on Walker Percy and his work. Next week, I will consider his locale as a man of the Deep South.


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