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Southern Discomfort


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

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 of interests has manifested itself in his fiction from the beginning. The Moviegoer (1961) is very much an “existential” novel of alienation, the story of the Underground Man in New Orleans. Its narrator and antihero, Jack Bolling, also known as Binx, is in the line of the great refusers, a line that includes Kafka’s Hunger Artist and the protagonist of Sartre’s Nausea as well as Dostoevsky’s monster of perversity. Binx refuses, for most of the novel, to accept the role assigned to him by family tradition and social class—a role that has a persuasive, if sometimes despairing, advocate in the person of his aristocratic Aunt Emily. Instead of living in the Garden District or the French Quarter, he inhabits a characterless suburb that might just as well be in Daytona or Los Angeles. Instead of consorting with debutantes and Mardi Gras queens, he prefers to make out with his secretaries, a series of Lindas and Marcias and Sharons with whom he likes to go spinning along the Gulf Coast, stopping to drink and lie in the sun. In Binx’s muffled world only the movies have the power to confer reality, only movie stars—William Holden, Rory Calhoun, Tony Curtis—can provide a temporary validation of his existence. The only other people capable of touching him deeply are fellow misfits like his deeply disturbed and suicidal step-cousin Kate and his devoutly Catholic half-brother, a fourteen-year-old cripple named Lonnie, who dies during the course of the novel.

The Moviegoer remains Percy’s best work, a perfect small novel whose themes, though important, are never allowed to overload the fictional craft. It is a book redolent of its time and place, a book with a thickly sensuous texture that can accommodate both the banalities of contemporary New Orleans and the glamorous aspects of Binx’s now meaningless heritage. It is full of expertly realized characters. The working out of the complex destinies of Binx and Kate is both believable and moving. I can think of no American novel in which the device of a first-person narrator has been used with finer tact, control, and shading.

The Last Gentleman (1966) is a much longer, more overtly ambitious enterprise. Its literary antecedents are Candide and the picaresque novel of the eighteenth century. Percy chooses a naïf as his protagonist, a young man of twenty-five from an old and honorable Delta family that has over the generations turned progressively ironical until it has finally lost its grip on life. Suffering from various nervous dislocations, including amnesia, Williston Bibb Barrett lives an almost totally isolated life at the 63rd Street YMCA in New York and works as a humidification engineer at Macy’s. Will Barrett is a lost soul of great politeness and good nature, ready to comply with almost anything that is proposed. Percy propels this young man into the orbit of an eccentric nouveauriche family from Alabama, the Vaughts, who have gathered in New York, where their youngest son Jamie is being treated for leukemia at a hospital; he then sends them all south again, with Will trailing along as a companion for Jamie and as an old-fashioned aspiring suitor of the daughter Kitty, with whom he has fallen in love. The subsequent adventures of Will, who eventually travels all the way to New Mexico, are too complicated for a retelling in this essay; it is worth pausing, however, to consider two aspects of the novel that are central to Percy’s fiction: the image of the South to which Will returns and the way in which the Catholic theme is handled.

The South he came home to was very different from the South he had left. It was happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic and Republican.” The Vaughts live in a 1920s castle on the edge of a golf links in the suburb of a booming industrial city suggestive of Birmingham. The other Vaught daughter, Val, who has become a nun and works with poor Negroes in a blighted part of the state, describes her childhood in these terms:

In the past…people have usually remembered their childhood in old houses in town or on dirt farms back in the country. But what I remember is the golf links and the pool. I spent every warm day of my girlhood at the pool, all day every day, even eating meals there. Even now it doesn’t seem right to eat a hamburger without having wrinkled fingers and smelling chlorine.

The Vaughts are shown as having sickened in this sunny world, psychically as well as physically. The older Vaught son, Sutter, is a failed doctor, a wastrel and a pornographer, a Dostoevskian diabolist bent upon violence and suicide. Even the jolly mother is addicted to books about the international Jewish conspiracy which was responsible for the defeat of the South in the Civil War.

In this novel, as in The Moviegoer, Percy handles the Catholic alternative so subtly, so diplomatically, that it is hardly to be perceived as an alternative at all. Percy is careful not to stack his deck, as Graham Greene often seems to do and as Waugh did so notoriously at the end of Brideshead Revisited. The nun Val is presented unattractively: a “plumpish bad-complexioned potato-fed Vaught,” capable of hatred and scorn. Sutter’s arguments against her position are given full weight. Even the death-bed baptism of Jamie, conducted by a reluctant Father Boomer at the request of Will, is kept carefully confused and inconclusive, though it is a moment of high drama at once moving and clinically gruesome.

I do not consider The Last Gentleman a wholly successful novel. It is somewhat like a hurricane swirling around a hollow center. Will Barrett is simply too blank, too passive a character to sustain the role assigned to him. But it is a rich book, with brilliant scenes, some of them marvelously funny.

Love in the Ruins (1971) is also rich and frequently funny, though in other respects it indicates, I think, a weakening of Percy’s grip upon his materials. Set in the pre-Orwellian year of 1983, it begins with a middle-aged doctor (the book’s narrator) sitting near the ramp of an interstate highway in Louisiana, a carbine on his lap, awaiting what may well be the end of the world. The doctor bears the name of his remote collateral ancestor, Sir Thomas More; he is a bad Catholic, an alcoholic, and quite possibly a madman. Within sight is a ruined Howard Johnson’s motel in which three young women—all of whom he loves—await his return.

The Sunbelt world of golf links, marinas, and shopping centers still exists in 1983; but things are now in a bad way; vines are encroaching everywhere; the young blacks have taken to the swamps, where they call themselves Bantus; atrocities occur daily; the Catholic Church has split into three parts, of which only the smallest still recognizes the supremacy of Rome; political divisions have hardened, the Republicans having become “Knotheads” (conservative, evangelical, prone to disorders of the lower bowel), while the Democrats are now the LEFT (advocates of the pill, pornography, abortion, love clinics, and euthanasia); in literature the Southern gothic novel has yielded to the Jewish masturbatory novel which has in turn given way to the WASP homosexual novel, which has nearly run its course.

The action centers upon an electronic gadget which Tom More has invented that can not only diagnose but alter mental and emotional states associated with the different areas of the brain. If the gadget has indeed, as the good doctor fears, fallen into the wrong hands, the consequences will be incalculable…. Love in the Ruins is a sharp-eyed, clever book that goes on much too long and strikes out in so many directions at once that it puts one in mind of a hornet’s nest poked by a stick. It suffers, if ever a novel suffered, from the looseness that Henry James saw as a major weakness of long novels in the first-person—from what he called “the terrible fluidity of self-revelation.” Given the truly astonishing amount of bourbon that More consumes during the course of his narrated adventures, one begins to compare the garrulity of the novel to that of an amusing, strident, and finally exasperating drunk who has trapped a hapless listener at the end of the bar.

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