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 to sexual behavior. There does seem to be a suppression of cortical function in his patients, but there has been no nuclear explosion or accident that he knows of in the nearby nuclear installation at Grand Mer. How, then, to account for the syndrome? The search for an answer leads More (and the reader) through the bayous and swamps and among the plantations, oil fields, housing developments, and high-rises of contemporary Louisiana. Helping the doctor in his quest are his enterprising cousin, Lucy Lipscomb, a physician-farmer who knows everything about computer technology; her witless, hunting-and-fishing uncle, who knows how to make duck calls; a nearly white black man named Vergil Bon, Jr.; and, indirectly, a priest, Father Simon Rinaldo Smith, who, like St. Simeon Stylites, has taken refuge at the top of a fire tower and refuses to come down.
Opposing them are all the evils, actual and projected, of the late twentieth century and the people—not necessarily evil themselves—who abet them. “Pedeuthanasia” and “gereuthanasia” have both, we learn, been declared legal and are practiced in the Quality of Life Division at Fedville (“the federal complex housing the qualitarian center, communicable diseases control, and the AIDS quarantine”). Directing the Division is More’s old colleague, Dr. Robert Comeaux, in whose custody he had been paroled; he is a dangerous idealist who ardently supports both the open and the secret agenda of the Quality of Life program. Opposite the monolithic tower of Fedville is the cooling tower of the nuclear facility known as “Mitzy.” Its “nuclear wizard” and chief trouble-shooter is John Van Dorn, who has also turned an old plantation (“Belle Ame”) into a boarding school that serves as a cover for the sexual abuse of children. Heavy sodium turns out to be the magic elixir for achieving both the good life and a pacified, perfectly engineered society.
I have mentioned only a fraction of the complications with which this crowded novel abounds. As the quest for the source of widespread heavy-sodium contamination in Feliciana Parish proceeds, event follows fast upon event and the themes proliferate. The latter, various as they are, may perhaps be subsumed under the Grand Theme voiced by Father Smith in a conversation with More in the fire tower. Words, the priest says, have been “evacuated,” deprived of meaning:
“It is not a question of belief or unbelief. Even if such things were all proved, if the existence of God, heaven, hell, sin were all proved as certainly as the distance to the sun is proved, it would make no difference, would it?”
“To people! To unbelievers and to so-called believers.”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“Because the words no longer signify.”
“Why is that?”
“Because the words have been deprived of their meaning.”
“By a depriver.”
“Right. Once, everyone admits, such signs signified. Now they do not.”
Deprived of significance, words like “pedeuthanasia” and “gereuthanasia” are simply covers for the systematic murder of malformed infants (“prepersons”) and the elderly, whose “quality of life” is hopelessly deficient. Father Smith, who as a young man spent time in Nazi Germany, knows how easily one can be seduced by glib euphemisms into monstrous practices. To be deprived implies a depriver: as the mad old priest says near the end of the novel, “The Great Prince Satan, the Depriver, is here.”
Much of The Thanatos Syndrome treats Percy’s serious concerns in a manner more playful than impassioned. The search for the source of the heavy-sodium contaminant and the perils encountered along the way build up into a story strong and dramatic enough to moderate the novel’s tendency to introduce one social theme after another. While many characters are too briskly sketched in to be memorable, they keep things moving, and the reader may ignore that they and their speech tend to be stereotypical and do not seem to have been felt in any deep way. Though conceived chiefly as people who stand for one attitude or another, they still contribute some degree of color and variety to Percy’s panorama of the soon-to-be contemporary South.
But once the central mystery is solved, the novel spins out of control. Comedy broadens into fairly crude farce when the child abusers are forced to take their own medicine. As if not quite knowing what to do with the last third of his book, Percy allows his narrator simply to pack in more and more observations not only about the grand evils of our time but about the banalities as well, ranging from Disney World to born-again Christianity. Care about form (never a major preoccupation of Percy’s), a concern to concentrate rather than to broadcast his effects, a degree of subtlety and surprise in the rendering of characters and their speech—these have all been sacrificed (in greater or lesser degree) in the author’s headlong rush to fictionalize his diagnostic observations and his tragicomic vision of horrors to come. Percy’s willingness to deal with big issues is no doubt salutary in a period of narrowly conceived novels, but The Thanatos Syndrome, for all its energy and inventiveness, lacks the shapeliness and substance of achieved literary art.
By contrast, The Rug Merchant—Phillip Lopate’s second novel—is a quiet book, carefully composed, mild-mannered, and reflective. It is best read, I think, as a latter-day reworking of the theme of refusal, which has recurred hauntingly in Western (including Russian) literature since the Romantic period. The refusal of a central character to participate vigorously and “successfully” in the world around him can take many forms and is subject to a variety of interpretations—aesthetic, moral, and psychological. With some of the late Romantics or Decadents, such a refusal can be viewed as a kind of aesthetic fastidiousness, as the deliberate naysaying of a person of exceptional sensitivity and refinement unwilling to soil his hands—an aspect perhaps of dandyism. Or it can be seen as the manifestation of a ferocious, excoriating rejection of cant and hypocrisy, as with Notes from Underground, or a reluctance to take unfair advantage or to profit at another’s expense. The aesthetic or moral emphasis gives way to the psychological in the case of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” James’s “The Beast in the Jungle,” and (most bleak of all) Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” which seem almost to beg for a reductive reading in terms of trauma, of sexual impotence, or of drastic infantile deprivation.
Cyrus Irani in The Rug Merchant is much more modest than the grand refusers mentioned above. A man in his mid-forties, “with kind black eyes, protuberant nose, bushy moustache, and harassed noble air,” Cyrus is a Zoroastrian Iranian who deals in Oriental rugs in a musty, denlike shop on Amsterdam Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A bachelor, he has a “métier for withdrawal,” an appetite that can “only partly be explained by clinical depression or ‘fear of success.’ ” A lover of music and art and fine rugs, he had once hoped to be an art historian and studied for his doctorate at Columbia. But after a nervous crisis of sorts, he came to doubt that he had anything original to contribute to art history and retreated to his Uncle Noshir’s rug store, which he eventually acquired as his own. “Certainly laziness played a part in his adaptive passivity, but there was something else. He regarded his stay on earth as that of a subletter.” His reluctance to participate in a harshly aggressive world or to pursue energetically some sexual opportunity derives more from an ingrained melancholy, from an elegaic sense of the deterioration of the neighborhood and culture that he cherishes than from moral revulsion or crippling neurosis.
Readers of Lopate’s engagingly written collection called Bachelorhood: Tales of the Metropolis (1981) will recognize that two of the essays provide a commentary of sorts on Cyrus’s situation. One of these, “Bachelorhood and Its Literature,” explores the sensibilities associated with bachelors, including a medieval Japanese poet, Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, Cesare Pavese, and Walter Benjamin. The other, “Quiche Blight on Columbus Avenue,” deplores the destruction of a seedy but family-scaled old neighborhood by the relentless advance of pretentious boutiques and restaurants, and has a direct bearing upon the crises over real estate with which The Rug Merchant begins.
The novel relies on a simple, almost rudimentary device upon which a series of episodes and meditations can be strung. Now that Columbus Avenue has been overwhelmed, its sister thoroughfare, Amsterdam, is the next target for “gentrification.” Cyrus receives a letter from his landlord advising him that his rent will be raised from nine hundred to three thousand dollars a month:
The bad news brought a lethargy to his limbs; a smile floated briefly across his lips. It had always been this way: whenever he found a powerful, virtually insuperable barrier in his path, one part of him grew pensive and resigned, while another seemed unaccountably relieved.
Made sleepy by the need to act, Cyrus hopelessly reviews his choices: passive resistance (which can end only in eviction), parting with his own small collection of antique rugs, going to his mother or brother for a loan (both painful and dubious prospects), or,
he could start looking for another, cheaper location, he supposed, releasing a heavy sigh; somehow it seemed impossible for him to function anywhere else. He would never find a place which suited so well his hibernating personality. This was the cave where he had retreated seventeen years ago, and where he had been licking his wounds ever since.
What follows is a series of finely written scenes connected for the most part with Cyrus’s reluctant attempts to solve his problem. In tracking his zigzag course—which takes him from a pet-shop owner next door to a Zoroastrian fire temple in Queens, to a used bookstore on West Eighty-eighth Street where he buys a rare edition of Cavafy, to a rigged auction of oriental rugs, to a jovial dinner party of Parsis and Iranians at his mother’s house, and to a “swing club” near Carnegie Hall—Lopate writes a kind of love poem to New York’s diversity, a sensuous evocation of the city that is less exuberant than crepuscular in tone. Part of the effectiveness of these scenes derives from the information they contain about the warp and woof of Oriental rugs, their varieties and merchandizing; the (to most of us) hidden community of Zoroastrians, then rites, their beliefs, and their history; the etiquette, practices, and clientele of a swing club.
Lopate’s characters emerge into focus from the twilight. He has the ability to interest us in unremarkable people such as Marge, the possibly lesbian “good sport” who owns the pet shop, or MacCourt, the misanthropic proprietor of the used bookshop, with whom Cyrus has established a quasi-friendship:
When a customer approached the desk to pay, clearing his throat in hopes of getting the owner’s attention, MacCourt would turn his neck alone, fixing his hard hazel eyes behind smudged horn-rimmed glasses on the intruder. If that were not enough intimidation, sometimes he smiled, revealing a bottom row of horribly twisted brown teeth. A man in his late sixties, he seemed stitched to a pea-green cardigan sweater.
He is effective, too, in creating vulgarians like Aberjinnian, the loud-mouthed auctioneer who keeps insisting to Cyrus that making money and getting laid are the only things that count, or Freddy (Farokh), Cyrus’s fat brother, who greets Cyrus’s arrival at their mother’s dinner party by yelling, “Quick, quick, pull my finger!” and then loudly farting.
The novel lacks much drama, despite a penultimate chapter in which matters are nearly resolved by a deus ex machina in the form of a nervous Hispanic youth with a gun. The pace is slow and meditative in a way that some readers may well find tedious. Others may be exasperated by Cyrus’s passivity and resignation. I finished The Rug Merchant, however, with the sense that something memorable had been accomplished in the characterization of Cyrus and his city—and heartened by the appearance of a quiet and subtle book unfashionably in the spirit of the old Amsterdam Avenue, rather than the new.
June 25, 1987