The first sentence of The Thanatos Syndrome places the reader in familiar Walker Percy territory: “For some time now I have noticed that something strange is occurring in our region.” Percy’s last novel, The Second Coming (1980), begins: “The first sign that something had gone wrong manifested itself while he was playing golf.” Recognitions continue as the reader discovers that the man sensing strange things happening in The Thanatos Syndrome is the same man who narrated an earlier novel, Love in the Ruins (1971). He is Thomas More, diagnostician of malaise, who in Love in the Ruins wielded his invention, the “quantitative-qualitative ontological lapsometer,” to measure a person’s level of estrangement from the self. Returning us to this familiar character, the antenna-twitching More, Percy also places us in his own backyard, Feliciana, with a devoted particularity. It is a location Percy readers know well enough now to think of as a second home.
In the near future of this sequel, which opens in 1996, More, still a psychiatrist, has been absent from Feliciana for two years, serving a sentence in a white-collar penitentiary for selling uppers and downers to truck drivers. Resuming his practice after the prison term, More is perplexed by patients who lack the symptoms—depression, phobias, longings—he is accustomed to seeing. Such adjustment would not be a bad thing, More reasons, if those he observed still manifested psychic complexity in their speech and mannerisms. The new adjusted subject, however, is dull, with flat-toned feelings and a tendency to talk in two-word sentences, like a computer. (This linguistic detail is one at which first-time Percy readers might balk, but aficionados of Percy’s satirical imagination will relish it.) A typical symptom of the newly adjusted is that when asked “Where is Schenectady?” he will supply a comically exact answer, so many miles north and west of other cities, without wondering why the questioner would pose such a query. In prison, More concluded that the essence of human behavior is contention and distrust. Two people sharing a room will naturally find a “side” to take and argue vehemently, and when not arguing, each will be sensitive to detect slights from the other person. Thus the blank passivity of Feliciana folks is troubling.
More turns detective and, with the help of his cousin, Dr. Lucy Libscomb, discovers that Feliciana drinking water has been laced with sodium 20, an ion used to cool the core of nuclear reactors, which alters the brain’s pharmacology, reducing anxiety and stimulating endorphins. Research psychiatrists at the Qualitarian Center, who among other things specialize in euthanasia for all ages, are doping the water to stop the decay in the social fabric. More corners Dr. Comeaux, a Qualitarian, who explains with statistics how the water tampering has lowered crime, depression, and teenage pregnancy rates. He asks More to join the Qualitarian team, to join the conspiracy against wife-beating, homosexuality, and ghetto murder. More objects that human rights are being violated—contemporary decadence is not sufficient justification for controlling the choices people make. More cites instances of sodium imbibers turning maverick under the influence, going sexually animalistic and murderous. Also, the nonimbibing scientist at the controls can, as does John Van Dorn, indulge megalomania, feeding massive doses to schoolchildren to facilitate molesting them sexually under the guise of ridding humanity of its puritanical conditioning. By the novel’s end, More has disrupted the Qualitarians, shut down the water tampering, and welcomed the signs of phobias and anxiety returning in his patients.
Thomas More models the quirky personhood he seeks to preserve. With his lapses into silence, quasi-seizures, and déjà vus, and his fondness for tossing paper airplanes while waiting for patients and tossing back Jack Daniels when the need arises, he still manages to observe and anatomize the lives of other selves with the sincerity and curiosity of a botanist set loose on a newly discovered continent. Percy favors a narrator down-at-the-heels, beleaguered, intermittently dazed, not untouched by the craziness Percy sees ruling the twentieth century, a time which has generated so many imponderables that a novelist can make a living recording them verbatim. Stedmann’s History of World War I is recreational reading for More, just as it was for the Thomas More of Love in the Ruins. This history documents such mechanical massacres as the battle of Verdun, where in a year’s time a half-million men killed one another without passion, and the battle line remained unchanged. The early More read Stedmann as “usual late-night fare,” while the late More resorts to the text when on vacation with his wife Ellen and their children at Disneyworld. Stedmann is More’s anchor amid the phantasmagoria of Tomorrowland: “Tomorrowland!—We don’t even know what Todayland...