Walker Percy (1916-1990) was a Faulkner-lovin’, Tarheel cheerin’, good ole Catholic boy from the deep South. His childhood was marred with tragedy – suicides & car accidents – and he was eventually adopted and raised by his bachelor uncle of a poet, William Alexander Percy. He became friends with Shelby Foote and became a born, bred, & dead boy at UNC with his brothers and Shelby before going to medical school at Columbia. His medical background, Southern upbringing, and complicated Catholicism blend together to create the common bonds of his literary work. I read Lancelot (1977) back in undergrad and remember loving it. It’s the story of a Southern lawyer who murders his wife after learning of her affair. Her infidelity becomes clear to Lancelot when he realizes his daughter’s blood type. Genetically speaking, he could not have had a child with her blood type. Lancelot recounts the story from within the confines of an insane asylum; I loved it. When I saw Love in the Ruins (1971) on the $1 dollar table at the flea market, I snagged it. Spending a buck on a Walker Percy novel can never be a waste.
Love in the Ruins is a fantastic example of modern literature. Blurbs on the back compare it to 1984 and Brave New World but say it’s “less preachy” and “funnier.” Having never read either of those (I know, bad, bookslut, bad), I suppose I went into the novel blindly. Having read Lancelot, however, I was not entirely unprepared. Love in the Ruins is the story of Dr. Thomas More, a psychiatrist who also happens to be a patient in the same hospital he works in. Heavy drinking, terrors, intense regrets, insanity, a deep love of the ladies, and a desire to be a well-known scientist have all worked together to create a rather unstable but likable all the same protagonist in an ever-changing but still racially divided and politically charged South.
The novel opens with More explaining that all hell is about to break loose. The second paragraph reads: “Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.” A few pages later, More gives the reader a good idea of his psyche:
“I, for example, am a Roman Catholic, albeit a bad one. I believe in the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church, in God the Father, in the election of the Jews, in Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, who founded the Church on Peter his first vicar, which will last until the end of the world. Some years ago, however, I stopped eating Christ in Communion, stopped going to mass, and have since fallen into a disorderly life. I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally I do as I please. A man, wrote John, who says he believes in God and does not keep his commandments is a liar. If John is right, then I am a liar. Nevertheless, I still believe.”
More is adrift in a world he can’t get a handle on. It’s immoral, it’s violent, it’s lustful. He blames the whole thing on the “race” issue, though he doesn’t really have a problem with “them.” He also doesn’t have a problem with the political left and right, or the religious sects. He lives in Paradise (please note that he is a “relative” of Sir Thomas More, the author of Utopia) but the world is falling into chaos around him. When he isn’t freaking out due to sweats, terrors, and paranoia, he is constantly noting how nature Is encroaching on the land around him. The vines cause him great concern. He is convinced that the United States, God’s gift, has fallen apart and is being destroyed and the root of the problem is the race issue – he says we screwed up when God gave us the land and all we had to do was one thing – not violate the Africans. We violated the Africans, we enslaved them, and the US fell from the grace of God.
His great invention, the lapsometer, can save the world. It reads the human condition, gets to the root of the matter, and all More has to do is figure out how to fix it once he figures out the problem. No one seems to take his invention seriously and he fears it will get in the wrong hands and destruction will be inevitable. But saving the world comes second to his lusty longings, for More is madly in love with three women. His devotion to the women rotates depending on who he is with and what ideas are being presented. Each woman serves a different purpose for him and toward the end he contemplates marrying all three and starting a new world, a better world.
The novel is a good representative of modern Southern literature; Percy is very adept at capturing the insanity of a fallen Catholic in a world gone mad. The novel isn’t preachy (yay for blurbs being accurate), and the moral dilemmas are well developed and just as chaotic as they should be. Dr. More is attempting to find the meaning of life – he looks toward God, science, music, women, and nature and is unable to find a clear answer, yet he is happiest when he is at peace with all five and happier still when he can reconcile them all together in a neat package. But maybe it’s the attempt to reconcile them that drives him the maddest?