Danger Zones

The Thanatos Syndrome

by Walker Percy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 372 pp., $17.95

The Rug Merchant

by Phillip Lopate
Viking, 218 pp., $16.95

As a crazed but prophetic priest in The Thanatos Syndrome says of the Jews, Walker Percy as a writer is “unsubsumable.” Certainly he cannot be comfortably subsumed under any of the categories to which his fellow American writers are likely to be assigned. He seems to enjoy playing the part of the provincial loner who, snug in his corner of Louisiana, rides his hobby horses, railing cheerfully against the myriad evils of this disastrous century. If, in the eyes of some critic, he is “our cool Dostoevsky,” he might also be called, on the basis of his new novel, “the adults’ Kurt Vonnegut.” As with all the novels that have followed his minor classic The Moviegoer, The Thanatos Syndrome releases a cageful of themes, which dart off in all directions. Percy’s pursuit of them is exhilarating.

To serve as the narrator of his new book, Dr. Tom More, the semialcoholic psychiatrist of Love in the Ruins (1971), has been revived. Having just been released from a federal prison where he has served an intellectually humbling—though not otherwise very rigorous—two years for illegally selling drugs, More is a rueful, likable failure, a somewhat less desperate version of a Graham Greene burnt-out case. He is well chosen to voice a new set of concerns appropriate to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the novel takes place. Though More’s psychiatric practice is now small enough to allow him plenty of time to sail paper airplanes from the front porch of his office in Feliciana Parish, he still has a few patients, and among them he notices a number of peculiar symptoms that teasingly suggest a larger pattern.

Something has happened to their speech. Instead of speaking in sentences, they utter catch phrases or verbal formulas that seldom consist of more than two words. In response to the good doctor’s questions, they display an odd ability to calculate numbers, dates, mileages, and bridge hands as if they were reading from internal computers. But they never seem concerned about the purpose or the context of his questions. Odder still, the women seem to have cast off all sexual reticence, and solicit his attention by “presenting” themselves from the rear like female chimpanzees in heat. “In each case,” he observes, “there has occurred a sloughing away of the old terrors, worries, rages, a shedding of guilt like last year’s snakeskin, and in its place is a certain mild vacancy, a species of unfocused animal good spirits.” They seem to lack not merely the old terrors or inhibitions but a sense of self—or “soul.” Nor are these symptoms confined to his patients. More perceives them in several other people whom he encounters—and in his wife Ellen, who has developed into a genius at duplicate bridge and shows herself eager, in their lovemaking, to be taken from behind.

Puzzling over this behavior, More thinks of a paper he wrote on “the effect of a heavy-sodium fallout on the inhibitory function of the cerebral cortex” with regard…

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