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Subject: Percy-L: Literary, Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Discussion on Walker Percy

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  • From: Jim Forest <jhforest AT>
  • To: "Percy-L: Literary and Philosophical Discussion" <percy-l AT>
  • Subject: Re: [percy-l] My book group discussed The Thanatos Syndrome
  • Date: Wed, 26 Sep 2012 12:24:18 +0200

Thanks for that fascinating posting, Janet. I wish I might have been present. You make me eager to reread the book.

Here's a review I did of it in 1987, soon after publication.


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Commonweal / November 1987


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The Thanatos Syndrome

by Walker Percy

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. 1987, 372 pp

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reviewed by Jim Forest


Walker Percy is southern and Catholic, Kurt Vonnegut northern and secular, not minor differences, but perhaps they recognize each other as relatives. Both are inclined to use comedy, at times the slapstick variety, in order to talk about some of the unfunniest subjects in the world, like war, euthanasia, abortion, and other justifications we cook up for killing one another.


Percy's hero in this book, as in his earlier novel, Love in the Ruins, is Dr. Thomas More, resident of a rural Louisiana parish (what we Yankees call a county) and a direct descendant of St. Thomas More. Like his ancestor, he has been a prisoner, but for selling amphetamines to truckers rather than for acts of fidelity to conscience. Also like his ancestor, he is a Catholic, except in the current generation, things being what they are, More's connection to his Church is threadbare. Still there is a bit of religious glue holding body and soul together. Tom More isn't able to make himself comfortable with the contemporary mercies that pave the way to the gas chamber and the abortorium.


In The Thanatos Syndrome we encounter a few psychiatrists who makes heaps of money running the Qualitarian Center, where the old and/or feeble-minded are provided with Death with Dignity. In their spare time, using a federal grant, the clever doctors are in the midst of a local experiment that they regard as the best idea since fluoride in toothpaste. While sticking to bottled water for themselves, they are lacing the parish water supply with a substance (borrowed from a nearby nuclear generator) that knocks out the part of the brain that makes people dangerous and miserable. Violent crime has evaporated in the area effected. Black prisoners are singing the old spirituals as they cheerfully pick cotton on the local prison farm. Sexual-transmitted diseases have practically disappeared. No more AIDS, no more herpes.


At first glance it looks like the doctors have found a chemical method to mass produce the lifestyle of the saints. People drinking the local water aren't inclined to do the sorts of things that make headlines in The National Enquirer.


But not quite. It turns out that adults who drink too much of the local water find that the ideal sex-partners are children.


The part of the brain made dormant also happens to be where the soul and conscience hang out. It is the patch that has most to do with creativity, verbal skills, and what makes us who we are. Those drinking the local water are better at telling you exactly where St. Louis is than in making a sentence that includes a subject, verb and object. They are a whiz at bridge but incapable of theology.


Percy links what is now happening in manipulative medical technology in the US and what was going on with psychiatry in Germany from the twenties until the collapse of the Nazis, at the same time pointing out that you don't have to like Hitler (the German shrinks didn't) to end up doing some of the worst things that happened in Hitler's Germany.


Percy integrates a steady stream of observation about the American Way of Life and what is like living in "the Age of Not Knowing What to Do." For example here is Tom More reflecting about a patient who, before the local water ironed out all depression and anxiety, felt like a failure:


"What is failure? Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time. Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print. But in the movies they don't show the failures. What you see are the takes that work. So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded- off way. It looks as if real failure is unspeakable. TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories. Because that is not the way life is. Life is fits and starts, mostly fits."


Percy continues his assessment of contemporary American Catholicism that began in Love in the Ruins. Fr. Kev Kevin, the former director of the Love Clinic, has abandoned the controls of the Orgasmatron computer and given up the priesthood as well. He is "into Hinduism," has married a former Maryknoll nun who is taking up witchcraft, and together they run a marriage encounter center in a rehabilitated stable.


In The Thanatos Syndrome we meet a very different kind of priest: Fr. Simon Smith, a modern stylite, fasting atop a fire-watch tower as the book begins. People consider him crazy as a loon. Maybe he is, but he's a saint as well. His "confession" is the keystone of the novel. Here we discover that his vocation is an on-going penitential work having chiefly to do with the devastation his father helped bring about in Europe -- he is the son of one of the liberal German physicians (anti-Nazis  one and all) whose work to "relieve suffering" via euthanasia helped prepare the way for the Holocaust.


Father Smith's big discovery in life was that "the only people I got along with were bums, outcasts, pariahs, family skeletons, and the dying." It isn't a boast. "I don't know about Mother Teresa, but I [did what I did] because I liked it, not for love of the wretched ... dying people were the only people I could stand. They were my kind ... Dying people, suffering people, don't lie."


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On Tue, Sep 25, 2012 at 4:23 PM, janetcantor37 AT <janetcantor37 AT> wrote:
If anyone is interested in more details than I am including here about the discussion of this book, write me and I will be glad to give you whatever you like. This is only a small sample of what occurred.

My book group went well. What I did to them was difficult. Instead of just leading a usual discussion where I asked questions about the story and characters and they answered, since this book is of so many layers, I did a technical analysis based on text and also showed how this story recapitulates Percy's life. For the purposes of this type of discussion, I didn't allow opinions, only technical things.

There is, I believe, no book group in the world who would have born so patiently the drudgery I put them through. They should be given kudos. They were intelligent in their responses to my questions and attentive all through my strictly structured discussion and they tried not to introduce digressions. By the end they did get what I was driving at.They understood that I was showing them things about Percy's genius that they would have missed in a one time reading of the novel.

I spent a lot of time on the way Percy repeats certain metaphors to underscore the main themes. One example of this is that light and dark are in dozens of lines throughout the book. Often dark swallows light. This  could represent  the blacks and whites in the south and their special relationship. Is it Tom, the white employer, who has the upper hand or Hudeen? But when Tom needs help, he can rely on Chandra and Hudeen perfectly.

But more importantly these lines are repeatedly in the text for  the major theme of good and evil and how personal definitions of each are not always correct ones. I quoted the passage from Isaiah "Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil, that put darkness for light and light for darkness..." And I stressed the throwaway line when Van Dorn and Tom are fishing and Van Dorn suggests cutting away the trees to see the sunfish better and Tom tells him that then they would all swim away, "You don't mess with light and dark," Tom tells him.

And I spent a lot of time on the pages where Comeaux turns on the radio in his car and Strauss waltzes underscore his rhapsodies about Blue Boy; and the music rises to a crescendo as Comeaux's passionate explanations reach an apogee. There are so  many layers of things going on in that scene:

The would be V's of the ironed out crowsfeet at the bottom of 188 give a hint to the broken V of the group of Ibis Tom notices while he is feigning interest in Comeaux's attempt at seduction for the "Blue Boy" project. Tom, anxious to get on with solving the mystery, absently notices the birds which go from a broken V (not perfect because there is something not quite right about Comeaux's ideals), to confetti (there is something haphazard in Comeaux's reasoning) and finally to plopping into the woods below (forget it - the whole idea must be stopped.) This whole scene and the book cries out for  filming. It is hilarious and terrifying at the same time. But mostly hilarious. Too bad no one made a movie of this book.

As I said, this is only a smidgin of the discussion and the two hour discussion represents only a drop in the bucket of what I could have given them.

At bottom, this book, which I considered on first reading messy and poorly edited, improves immensely on successive readings. The more I read it the less fault I was able to find with it. Percy, in his inimitable manner, took a dead serious subject and a seminal experience from his own life and framed it in a gripping suspense story with hilarious content.

Janet Cantor

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Jim & Nancy Forest
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