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. The sick make good picaresque figures, for sickness gives one the sharp eyes and freedom of fever.
Walter Percy’s gift is for moving about, catching the smell of locality, and for a laughing enjoyment between his oouts with desperation and loss. As in pretty well all intelligent American novels, the sense of America as an effluence of bizarre locality is strong. The hero is liable to sexual hay fever. This book ends with him racing after his sinful psychiatrist, in desperation. Case unsolved, but he has traveled like mad, his eyes starting out of his head: a comedian.
In Love in the Ruins, the sick hero is older. He is in his disgraceful forties, a brilliant alcoholic and girl-chasing doctor, liable to depression and bowel trouble most of the week. But war and general disaster have an appeasing or stimulating effect upon neurotics. The sense of a loss beyond his own wakes up his eccentric faculties; he now sees that the world is more farcical than he is. For the America of (I suppose) the 1990s is breaking up. There have been outbreaks of civil war for years, brought on by Negro risings and the fifteen-year war in Ecuador:
Our beloved old USA is in a bad way. Americans have turned against each other; race against race, right against left, believer against heathen, San Francisco against Los Angeles, Chicago against Cicero…. Vines sprout in sections of New York where not even negroes will live. Wolves have been seen in downtown Cleveland.
Poison ivy grows up the speaker-posts in drive-in movies, vegetation grows through the cracks in the highways, and—greatest of all symbols of disaster—many a Howard Johnson motel has gone up in flames. Of course there has been nuclear fallout here and there. The hero has hives.
A disastrous story, but not very tragic for the doctor, although his wife has run off with an English Buddhist and his daughter has died. A shrewd irony, helped by a mixture of bourbon and self-interest, pulls him together. Not only that: he is lucky to live in a suburban town which survives in a state of respectable paranoia on the edge of a swamp inhabited by murderers and other disaffected people. Occasionally the murderers come out for the kill, but golf staggers along. In the Fedvil complex, the hospital still stands, the Masters-and-Johnson-style Love Clinic—now run by a lapsed Irish priest—is packed every day with experimental copulators who earn fifty dollars a go; the Geriatric Rehab buildings keep people alive until they are a hundred, and euthanasia does well at Happy Isles. You press the Euphoria button.
The American way carries on, but the evasions, the unaccountable rages, and the tendency to be abstracted from reality and orbit in limbo and to alternate between bits of meaningless idealism and bestiality have increased. Cunningly the doctor has patched up a corner of a wrecked Howard Johnson where he plans to store three girls he will save in the next wave of destruction. Sniping has begun again, there are rumors of a new rising of blacks, and there is a sodium cloud in the distance.
The doctor, known to be a crackpot genius and no more than a nuisance when in drink, has a consolation. The study of sodium and encephalogy has led him in the course of years to create an instrument called the lapsometer. It measures the electrical activity of the separate centers of the brain. Can the readings be correlated with the causes of the woes of the Western World, its terrors, rages, and impulses, even the perturbations of the soul? Up to a point they can be. There are comic successes with the impotent, the frigid, the angry, the passive: the medical comedy is very good. The hospital suspects the metaphysical turn of its drunk genius, but the Director sees what a political weapon the lapsometer can be. What a gift for Washington, this machine that can, at any rate, manipulate people if it can do no more.
This theme of science fiction is crossed with the drama of the community’s situation. The riots are beginning, murders increase, the sodium cloud comes nearer, the sand in the golf bunkers is on fire. Saved by his lapsed Presbyterian secretary, the lapsed Catholic stays on in the wrecked community, now largely taken over by the blacks who copy English accents from their English golf pros on the course. The intellectual blacks have fled to Berkeley, Harvard, and the University of Michigan, to scowl at the mixed-up population who, as well as they can, get on with ordinary life. The doctor is nearly off the bottle and nearly off chasing girls.
To satirize the present one pretends it is the future. Mr. Walker Percy’s present is limbo; a scene of wicked comedy, sharp portraits of types, and awful habits of mind. The religious and political mix-up is very funny. He is a spirited and inventive writer and there is a charred hell-fire edge to his observation. Exactly what, as a moralist, he wants us to do, I’m not sure. Join the remains of the church, get back to the doctor’s ancestor Sir Thomas More? Or simply rejoin ordinary life? Or is middle age the ideal to be aimed at? He is more interested in the state of sex than in the state of the Union: but isn’t sex just the latest item of conspicuous waste in Western society? I am afraid that in the eye of this hurricane of laughing anger, there is a sentimentalist. Still, a very clever one, full of ideas. As always in American novels, the impedimenta are good. Sears Roebuck has made its contribution to literature.
The clown in Being There, Mr. Jerzy Kosinski’s neat fable, has been given, as if by magic, the gift of nullity. Shut up in the house of a millionaire he has never seen is a young parentless gardener called Chance who has never been outside the walls. He cannot read or write. He simply looks at television which gives him his sole knowledge of the outside world. The millionaire dies. The gardener is turned out. A street accident occurs and he is taken up by another rich man and his wife. Since he has few chances of speech in his life he “resorted to repeating to her parts of her own sentences, a practice he has observed on TV…. Each time Chance repeated her words she brightened and looked more confident.” And not only she, but her husband the important financier, indeed everyone.
Slowly the illiterate and passive figure who knows only about plants and gardens finds himself becoming a political oracle, waited on because he is an echo. The fact that he has no normal past that anyone, including the FBI, can discover gives him a huge advantage: he is a powerful mystery. He meets diplomats, goes to conferences, the President consults him, the Russians are alarmed by him. Simply repeating what his interlocutor says, he becomes an enigmatic eminence: governments are run by narcissism. In sexual love he impresses because he has never heard of it. His nullity drives people mad. From a reference to Krylov—few of whose fables I have read—I guess that is where Mr. Kosinski gets his slight but ingenious idea, and above all the excellent, simple prose that carries his comedy so delicately from scene to scene in this dismissal of the important and political. The joke does become predictable. The book is one more satire on being “abstracted from reality and orbiting in limbo,” a tender allegory with whatever moral you like to put to it.
July 1, 1971