Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Offered as a tongue-in-cheek, pre-holocaust tale, Love in the Ruins is subtitled The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Its protagonist and narrator, Dr. Tom More, is named for the famous sixteenth century saint who authored Utopia (1516). More is a rueful psychologist who has developed an instrument for research which he calls the “lapsometer.” The lapsometer is a device that measures certain psychic forces in the brain and thereby makes it possible to determine the source of irrationality, which for Percy is characterized by one of two extremes.

In Percy’s view, the two most evident maladies of modern life are angelism, the tendency to abstract oneself from the ordinary circumstances of life and attempt to live above them in aloof intellectualism, and bestialism, the tendency to live as a brute consumer with an unrestrained, animal-like preoccupation with sex without procreation. This protracted indictment of modern culture surfaces frequently in Percy’s later fiction, most prominently in Lancelot and in The Thanatos Syndrome.

The narrative is bracketed into five main sections, followed by an epilogue that delineates what has happened in the five years subsequent to the July 4 climax. It is an apocalyptic time in which the social institutions that are supposed to provide stability and continuity have broken down or become ridiculous parodies of themselves. The halls of academe, the medical profession, civil government, and a host of venerable religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, are all satirized as ineffectual and compromised, each having sold out to the spirit of modernism and therefore being contemptible to Percy.

Racial tensions have erupted into violent confrontations as the very fabric of American society is about to unravel. Under the accumulated weight of centuries of guilt and alienation, “ordinary folk” find their self-image slowly disintegrating, their sex lives impotent, and their digestion failing; they seek help from two main sources, proctologists and psychologists.

The reader discovers Dr. More in the midst of a personal and professional crisis made all the more difficult by heightened racial tensions across the United States but particularly in his region of the South. He looks out over an interstate cloverleaf and describes the four quadrants of his city. One quarter is occupied by conservative Christian businessmen. Another is the federal complex, where government funding has produced a hospital where More works, a NASA facility, a Geriatrics Center, and the Love Clinic. A third quarter encompasses Paradise Estates, the suburb where More lives in his deceased wife’s house. The fourth is the Honey Island swamp, where assorted antisocial derelicts, castoffs, and the ferocious Bantus, a group of militant black guerrillas seeking social justice, reside. As he speaks, More is awaiting the end of civilization, surrounded, nevertheless, by three attractive women—two erstwhile girlfriends and his loyal nurse, Ellen.

More’s financial and professional situation is precarious, and he makes a dubious, Faustian bargain with the diabolical Art Immelmann, who promises to market More’s invention and help him earn favor with foundations to fund further research. More soon realizes that Immelmann is not to be trusted—he alters More’s device so that it not only detects but also remediates the psychic imbalances, then distributes lapsometers to ill-trained students who misuse the instruments with sometimes hilarious consequences.

A racial uprising of Bantus, planned for July 4, provides the comic backdrop for the novel’s ambiguous ending. Praying to his sainted ancestor, Sir Thomas More, Tom More succeeds in thwarting Immelmann’s evil plans. The social upheaval proceeds apace, however, and in the epilogue, More intimates that black people have displaced white people as the ruling class but have acquired the same social pathologies that had plagued black-white...

(The entire section is 1,486 words.)