[percy-l] Brent Short on Walker Percy

Jim Forest jhforest at gmail.com
Tue Mar 27 07:39:22 EDT 2012

  Critical Symposium: Brent Short on Walker Percy
*Monday, March 26, 2012 by Brent

*[image: Walker Percy]Open Road’s Critical
this week with a new series focusing on the great Southern novelist
Percy <http://www.openroadmedia.com/authors/walker-percy.aspx>. The central
theme of Percy’s work was the decline of religion and spirituality in
modern society. We’ve therefore asked our contributors to discuss this
aspect of Percy’s work and how he handled questions of faith in his own
life. *

*We begin with an essay by Brent Short, who conducted an in-depth
Percy in 1990 after the publication of
*The Thanatos Syndrome<http://www.openroadmedia.com/books/the-thanatos-syndrome.aspx?bli=1#bookDetail>
*. In his essay, Short describes how he became interested in Percy’s work
and what it was like to meet him in person. What follows is a lucid
examination of the profound spiritual questions that haunted Percy’s
writing. As always, we invite you to join the discussion in the comments
section below. *


In 1989, the year before Walker Percy’s death, I interviewed him at the
Henley Park Hotel in Washington, DC, the day before he was to give his
Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment of the Humanities. I previously
had briefly met him at a book signing at Kramer Books on DuPont Circle in
Washington, DC, where I was living at the time. I was immediately struck by
how shrunken and frail he looked the second time round—at first I actually
wondered if I had the right person. He didn’t look entirely well. To me he
already had “that look,” but as soon as he spoke, that Southern-inflected
voice that came through in his writing was right there.

[image: Pull Quote]With people queued all the way out into the street, in
the fifteen seconds I had to say something catchy or clever at the book
signing, all I could come up with was that I had already read the book
(twice actually) and liked it. As he was signing my copy of *The Thanatos
Syndrome* he seemed almost surprised and pleased to hear that, and when I
remarked that his hand must be cramping from all that book signing, he told
me that his handwriting, like that of most doctors, was pretty bad to begin
with. I heard one of the other people, a young woman who stood in line
ahead of me, remark to him that along with Bob Dylan, Percy was her biggest
hero. That got him out of his chair to give her a big hug.

I couldn’t tell you why I was sitting on the couch across from one of
America’s most celebrated authors of high seriousness in the Henley Park
Hotel. As an interviewer I knew there had to be a lot of literary types out
there that would love to trade places with me and were certainly a hell of
a lot more qualified to do so—nevertheless, there I sat with my notes, and
my questions, and my little black tape recorder. On the other hand, I guess
I could tell you how it ended up being me sitting there. Like a lot of
things that end up being lifelong interests, it started out as someone
else’s interest. The very first person to tell me about Walker Percy and
Thomas Merton (neither of whom I had even heard of) was a young woman
graduate from Trinity, a small Catholic college in Washington, DC. Like the
young lady in the bookstore, she had a contagious enthusiasm and I caught
it. So there I sat across from Percy, ready to discuss his latest comic
apocalyptic depiction of the contemporary malaise, *The Thanatos Syndrome.*

[image: Pull Quote]I’ll give myself some credit: I was well prepared. I had
tried crafting a series of questions that addressed themes in Percy’s work
overall, as well as those more specifically focused on what ended up being
his last novel—a novel saturated in death. And while most readers would
probably agree that *Thanatos* is not his strongest novel, it is without a
doubt his most blatant address of what he called the century of death—and
overtly “pro-life,” if you will. It was a novel that definitely had a
message to go along with a warning, as all of his novels did, but this one
had a Christian humanism that plainly showed through, and that opened its
author up to criticism. This was a novel that he probably did well to wait
to write until after his reputation was already firmly established. That in
and of itself made it an interesting novel to talk about, and when you go
back and read the interview you can see that he was certainly more than
aware of the chances he was taking as a novelist, and the choice he made.
It dawned on me that he felt this was a book he wanted to get out there as
a cautionary tale, for no other reason than to make sure he got it out
there before it was too late . . . for everybody.

I tried following Percy’s lead by making sure we didn’t get absolutely
bogged down in the heavy themes of the book—genocide, euthanasia, social
engineering in an age of exploding technology and scientific knowledge, the
devaluation of life, and the reliving of the rise of Nazi Germany through
the memories of a broken-down priest, Father Smith. What I mean by
following his lead is not letting the seriousness of it all go entirely
unrelieved—one of the things I admired most about his fiction and
particularly his send-up of pop psychology and pop science in *Lost in the
Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book*. I brought a few lighthearted questions to
lessen the potentially lethal seriousness of it all. My hope as an
interviewer was that we might actually end up having something akin to a
real conversation, where everything wasn’t so strictly scripted. It struck
me as the sanest approach when dealing with all these potentially grim
subjects. If nothing else, I had learned from Percy’s own writing of the
supreme dangers of taking yourself too seriously, a pretension that simply
adds to a lethalness already in the air.

This was going to require a little humor. So I asked him about bourbon’s
popularity amongst Southerners, about why he always made fun of Ohioans and
how they talked (or “tocked”) in his books, and I threw in a Dan Quayle
joke at the end—seemed only right. What I feared most, looking overmatched,
an amateur asking serious (too-serious) questions, I never felt in his
presence, which for me was a great grace—like the appreciative hug the girl
got from him in the bookstore. That image of Percy jumping out of his chair
stayed with me. It was a wonderful gesture from such a droll surveyor of
the lethal consciousness of the twentieth century, satirizer of the
contemporary malaise and human condition, from the one who stared it all
down in his books and essays. That image of spontaneity, a little sign,
gave me a little wiggle room going into the interview. Maybe it wouldn’t be
as intimidating to talk to him as I imagined.

[image: Pull Quote 1]That in a sense* was* his subject and his
narrative—finding signs of life, a reason to hope, to be onto something. A
self-confessed hater of the twentieth century, he made forays into
contemporary consciousness that might come across as preachy or overbearing
in another’s hands. Percy was too sly for that, operating out of a
conviction that to get around many of the postmodern, post-Christian
assumptions of the reader, he had to address Man’s waywardness and
homesickness indirectly, disarmingly, often through comedic means. As a
writer, it’s not always what you write about as much as how you put it. And
here, Percy had it going on in spades. People key into his writings because
of the surety of the laconic voice they’re listening to, not just what he
said but the way he said it. He could capture and play with ideas and
language in an amusing way and not just get his point across, but get it
across in such a way that readers might actually pay attention.

The fact that Percy was a Southerner gave him an ear for all varieties of
American dialect, but obviously there was a lot more than just cultural
satire at play. The wry voice behind all those feckless Southern gentlemen
in search of a real identity in an age of prosperity and happiness, an
authentic life in the age of mass media and the inauthentic, was also a
shrewd voice that had a way of conveying and concealing what was
essentially a life-and-death struggle. He was well-suited for observing the
paradoxes of the twentieth century, which he describes in his essay “Why
are You a Catholic?” as “the most scientifically advanced, savage,
democratic, inhuman, sentimental, murderous century in human history.”

Certainly, the fact that he was a Catholic writer played a significant role
in his claim that the stakes really were that high. Perhaps it also took
someone whose own family had been plagued by a series of suicides to really
understand how the culture of life and the culture of death seep into every
fallibility, every choice, underscoring the personal nature of the very act
of communication and choice itself. Perhaps it took an ex-medical student
to recognize that a sense of pathology also implies a sense of health. As
he once said, a writer has to have “the knack”—knowing how to put things,
connecting what might not appear to be connected—the radar for it, the
ability to pick it up out of the air. In his case, he started with the
heavy ironies of the twentieth century and created from there. In his essay
“Notes for a Novel About the End of the World,” Percy wrote: “The hero of
the post-modern novel is a man who has forgotten his bad memories and
conquered his present ills and who finds himself in the victorious secular
city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.”

[image: Pull Quote]Starting with Binx Bolling in *The Moviegoer *all the
way through to Dr. Thomas More in* The Thanatos Syndrome, *Percy drew
protagonists* *sunk down into their everydayness*, *mostly successful, but
feckless, who are troubled by an out-of-placeness, a no-placeness that
bears a peculiarly contemporary stamp. Percy posits a startling
possibility: Their trouble might actually be a sign pointing away from
itself, back to itself—more often than not, reduced and explained away.
Nevertheless, their problems lie beyond the reach of the objectifying cause
and effect of secularized science, sociology, and psychology; that is to
say, the actual existence of a soul, afflicted as it might be.

These protagonists are exemplars for his philosophical and existential
concerns—why should anyone care about these upside-down souls trying to
figure out what to do with themselves or modern society’s derangements? Our
very lives might just depend on it. Those are the stakes Percy proposes. As
a moralist, and a diagnostic novelist, he payed attention to telltale
signs, drawing the lines of choice standing before us. In the broadest
sense, suffering from a terminal illness called the human condition, his
characters are all on the same hook, just as he was as a young man, driven
to make choices (starting out as an agnostic medical student and devout
believer in empirical science, ending up a Catholic novelist). Placing his
characters in the midst of “the search” against the boredom, dislocation,
and emptiness of this death in life seems only natural.

Surely the most significant, and paradoxical, sign at the center of that
search is the peculiar and mysteriously individual natures of the seekers
themselves—a stumbling block to any scientific or behavioral theory. This
is where Percy located the true value of individuals, offered his
correctives, and fused his diagnostic skill with his fiction, his eye on
his characters’ peculiar alienation playing itself out again and again. It
was as if he took the happy paradise of the shopping mall and the golf
course in the suburbs, part of the most successful consumerist culture in
the history of the world, and could still, despite all appearances, see the
real spirit of the times, its malevolent possibilities, as just another
playground for the demonic. Getting the reader to actually see the
many-sided aspect of its lethalness as he saw it, and not run them off or
turn them off, combining humor with high seriousness, was the trick that
enabled him to fuse fiction with philosophy, fiction with existentialism,
fiction that stands as the very antithesis to easy and, ultimately,
unsatisfying answers; or even worse, nihilism dressed up in the name of
ideology or scientism; slippery ideas and slippery language all leading to
an abyss.

[image: Pull Quote 3]Part of my interest in Percy as a novelist was in the
faith that undergirded his writing. Whatever sign or hint of an answer he
offered up was always going to remain suggestive, allusive, and as such,
instructive to other writers who might share similar faith concerns. The
way he was able to take his characters’ waywardness and unease and use it
as part of a prognosis for the age was ingenious and, as yet, unrivaled.
Successful in an ironic way Percy might appreciate, as he understood with a
unique vision (that was both comic and deadly serious), the pilgrim’s
search would have to be conducted in a post-Christian world where many of
the symbols and signs that directed pilgrims on their way were already
stripped of all their meanings. In a sense, Percy created new signs through
his exploratory essays and fiction, and revived the old vanishing ones,
giving them new uses, new senses, in an upside-down, ironic way that only a
modern man or woman might understand and appreciate. In his essay “Notes
for a Novel about the End of the World,” he asserts: “Instead of
constructing a plot and creating a cast of characters from a world familiar
to everybody, he (the novelist) is more apt to set forth with a stranger in
a strange land where the signposts are enigmatic but which he sets out to
explore nevertheless.”


Brent Short is the Director of Library Services at Saint Leo University in
Florida. His writing has appeared in *Radix*, *The Christian Century*, *Mars
Hill Review*, *Inklings*, *Sojourners*, *The Merton Seasonal*, *The Other
Side*, and *Christianity and Literature*

A Canonization in Munich:

Photos of the canonization:

Article about St. Alexander Schmorell:

Photos of my recent travels in Poland:

Reflections on a visit to Auschwitz:

Recent books:

*All is Grace*
revised and expanded biography of Dorothy Day:

*Saint George & the Dragon*
a children's book:

*For the Peace From Above*
a resource book on war, peace and nationalism:

Jim & Nancy web site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
Jim's books: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/books/
Photo collections: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/collections/
In Communion site: www.incommunion.org
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: www.forestflier.com
On Pilgrimage blog: http://jimandnancyonpilgrimage.blogspot.com/
A Tale of Two Kidneys blog: http://ataleof2kidneys.blogspot.com/

*Jim & Nancy Forest*
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands

* * *
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