Love in the Ruins
The hero as the clown. It is not a new idea, but it can be given a new twist if he is sick and if the “normal” world is more absurd, more dangerous, and sicker than he is. That sickness comes from the normal man’s refusal to face the facts; the clown’s sickness comes from a morbid awareness of them. Having gone through so much he is clever and stoical. He pesters himself to the point of laughter. After all, he is the comedian of the clinic; and, in Walker Percy’s novels, the clinic is sex-mad, science-mad, pleasure-mad contemporary life.
Why is the clown sick? After reading Love in the Ruins, which is a satirical fantasy set in the United States twenty or thirty years ahead, one sees that the basic reasons have been developed since that very seductive first novel The Moviegoer. In this work the clown is a prosperous young broker and lapsed Catholic in New Orleans, pursuing happiness in a civilization which has stretched that piece of elastic until it snaps back on him. Caught by the itch for instant sex, new things, and the general go-go, he is unaccountably trapped by malaise. Buy a new car, try a new girl, and there is the instant “pain of loss.” He is “no longer able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.” He becomes—in the later novels—“abstracted from reality” and can be said to be “orbiting in limbo” between “angelism and bestiality.” In The Moviegoer, he is a nice, clever, unreliable young man. The movie ideal of the car and the girl never quite works:
I discovered that my fine new Dodge was a regular incubator of malaise. Though it was comfortable enough, though it ran like a clock, though we went spinning along in perfect comfort and with a perfect view of the scenery like the American couple in the Dodge ad, the malaise quickly became suffocating. We sat frozen in gelid amiability. Our cheeks ached from smiling. In despair I put my hand under her dress, but even such a homely little gesture as that was received with the same fearful politeness. I longed to stop the car and bang my head against the curb. We were free, moreover, to do that or anything else, but instead on we rushed, a little vortex of despair moving through the world like the still eye of a hurricane.
In The Last Gentleman, the sense of loss becomes literal amnesia. He has lost identity, but that is rooted of course in the past and there, somewhere lying about, was the religion he no longer believes in; also the security of a shady but settled way of life in the South. To devote oneself blindly to another’s pain is worth a try; but shy of a moral so schematic, he turns this into a wandering adventure all the way from New York to Louisiana with the bizarre family of a dying youth …