Southern Discomfort


by Walker Percy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 257 pp., $8.95

Walker Percy
Walker Percy; drawing by David Levine

Not very long ago a New York critic, who sometimes seems too acutely attuned to the fluctuations of literary fashion, proclaimed the extinction of the Southern novel as a vital force in American literature. He was indignantly scolded for his presumption by a far-from-extinct Southern writer who may any day surprise us with another masterpiece. Both the presumption and the indignation could have been averted by a more accurate phrasing of the issue. To the degree that the designation “Southern” suggests a backward region of eroded fields and fly-specked towns, obsessed by past glory and defeat, encumbered by an archaically complex system of class and race relationships, torn by conflicting tendencies toward humor, kindliness, xenophobia, and violence—to this degree the critic was probably right. The old subject matter has been pretty well exhausted, though green shoots will occasionally sprout from the hard-packed clay.

But another great subject has meanwhile presented itself: the transformation of the Deep South into the Sunbelt, that land of football fanatics, twice-born Baptists, pipe-line mechanics, and rapacious Buick dealers which stretches from Atlanta through Texas and beyond. Thus far it has been most conspicuously exploited in four novels by Walker Percy. The latest of these, Lancelot, is too flawed a performance to advance the cause of Southern fiction very far on its own, but it is an interesting book, one which knots together many themes that have preoccupied Percy from his rather late beginnings as a novelist. It will be useful to glance at the context established by Percy’s earlier novels before taking a hard look at Lancelot itself.

As a writer, Percy occupies an almost symbolically pivotal position from which to observe and respond to the metamorphosis of South into Sunbelt. The descendant of plantation owners and Confederate officers, with all the historical and sentimental attachments to the region which those facts imply, he is also very much a man of the present, a doctor of medicine with strong interests in science and contemporary linguistic theory. Another perspective is provided by the fact that he is a Roman Catholic in an area that is overwhelmingly Protestant. Although he now lives on the fringes of Catholic New Orleans, he spent many years in predominantly Baptist Alabama and Mississippi, where anti-Catholic prejudice was powerful; even now, he lives as that comparative rarity—an Anglo-Saxon Catholic among fellow churchmen of very different social and national backgrounds. The literary influences upon him have been more foreign than home-grown: Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Sartre, and Camus—the latter having meant more to him, he has recently stated, than Faulkner, who lived only a hundred miles away. He is thus at once a native and an alien, a man of ideas in a part of the country where the spoken word has always been more relished than the written, where literary talents have been traditionally nourished more by anecdote than by philosophy.

Percy’s special—even peculiar—set…

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