Walker Percy Percy, Walker (Vol. 2) - Essay

Percy, Walker (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Percy, Walker 1916–

Percy, a National Book Award-winning stylist and satirist, is best known for his novels The Moviegoer and Love Among the Ruins. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Mr. Percy, for one, is not the kind of Southerner who sets his face against the great Yankee abstractions (you might as well battle the wind), any more than he minds their overgrown children—psychiatry, sociology, high-level ecumenism. What puzzles him is a world in which the abstraction comes first: the conceptualized Yankee world where plans are always proceeding for this and that but where nobody asks the serious questions such as what does the neighborhood feel like, how does it sound in the afternoons, can you get a decent nap, how do the children look, etc.—the questions that the poet puts to the schoolman concerning the texture of life.

Mr. Percy is above all a student of textures (even his lovers "rub dorsal surfaces") and The Last Gentleman is a fantastically intuitive report on how America feels to the touch….

Page-for-page and line-for-line this is certainly one of the best-written books in recent memory. As a Southern writer, Percy inherits the remains of a sonorous musical language. But beyond that, his unique point of view forms beautiful sentences like a diamond cutting glass.

Wilfrid Sheed, "Walker Percy: The Last Gentleman" (1966); in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 18-21.

While there are many differences between the novels of Faulkner and Walker Percy, both these Southern writers share the same point of view, although Percy's characters are less concerned with the reasons for the moral and physical collapse of their world and more concerned with how to come to terms with everyday problems. Percy adds to Faulkner's puzzled narrative mind a reflective consciousness from which the narrator or central character hangs suspended, filtering his observations through the heavy gauze of a curious mind, so that objects exist on two levels of reality—as object and as food for consciousness, de trop and metamorphosized by the mind….

As in Faulkner's novels, Percy's fiction takes place in a prolapsed world, often cut off from the ordinary workaday world, where characters are haunted by the past and bound by the absurdity of their situation. To this, Percy adds two states of narrative consciousness—one of perception and another of reflection—and also a sense of the grotesque. Percy's strength as a novelist—his brilliant sense of the grotesque, his ability to depict the estranged mind, his sense of coincidence—is also the source of his weakness because it leads at times to farfetched situations, especially in The Last Gentleman…. Percy puts a great burden upon his abundant stylistic ability, and when the style breaks down he is in serious narrative trouble….

Percy's alienated man is lonely and unloved, an isolated consciousness. He can find peace, however, through social communion, through sharing his concerns with someone equally, or even more greatly, plagued.

There is a comfort in sharing such dread, a warmth like spending a sheltered evening by a cabin fire while the wind and sea roar outside. A far more disturbing question, according to Percy is, "What if the Bomb should not fall? What then?" This question implies no hope of deliverance, no way of escaping what Percy calls "everydayness," no way out of the rat trap that the Bomb would bring so comfortably and so quickly. Percy believes that a sense of well being often accompanies a public catastrophe, that the individual exorcises his personal fears when he knows that his suffering will be shared….

Life, for Percy, thus becomes a search for shared consciousness, for a communion of mind, for the affirmation of self which can only be found in the reflection of an other. Failure to find this—and what we are talking about, of course, is love—leads to nothingness, an emptiness of mind and soul, the blank stare of the commuter from the window of the eight-fifteen….

The "return" (or the "repetition," as Percy also calls it) is a return to the past in search of self—a coming to terms with a haunted and guilt laden world, a theme that abounds in Southern fiction. The traveller, delivered from everydayness, has a new perspective; this is a true "existential reversal," to use Percy's term, the mind now its own place, seeing what is unique in the scene, seeing the grotesque nature of reality, consciousness dominating the landscape, mind now ruling matter, the I and It at one.

These existential modes—alienation, repetition, and return—give the critic a cutting edge to examine Percy's novels—for The Moviegoer is a brilliant analysis of alienation, and The Last Gentleman is an ambitious attempt to describe the process of rotation and return….

Percy's novels, I believe, stop short of any kind of usual resolution, simply because his implied resolution cannot stand scrutiny and is more convincing implied than narrated. Percy is brilliant in describing a character's sense of alienation; he can also handle, usually with a comic effect, the sense of dislocation that comes with "rotation"; he has not found, however, the narrative means to make the "return" convincing, perhaps because the return is more complex than Percy realizes, both in his essays and in his fiction.

Richard Lehan, "The Way Back: Redemption in the Novels of Walker Percy," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 2, Spring, 1968, pp. 306-19.

Percy's philosophical ambiguities gain power through his scalpular, far-ranging style. His medical training … enables him to turn an anatomical figure of speech as confidently as Jonson or Swift: "Her wrist was broad and white as milk and simple: it was easy for him to imagine that if it was cut through it would show not tendon and bone but a homogeneous nun-substance." At the same time, he can, like Joyce, create a cluster of sounds and related word-meanings that captures the physicality of a physical act: "Oh, hideous exploding humiliating goddamnable nose pain, the thump-thud of woe itself." But Percy's verbal artistry does not stop here. He is just as sensitively attuned to verbal contraries as he is to verbal likenesses. By referring to a "brown schematic mountain," he forces us to see reality as something that includes both mental and physical properties. The phrase also shows how an agile, poised style helps a writer enforce his theme. The economy and aptness of Percy's language converts [in The Last Gentleman] Bill Barrett's mental cramp into immediate experience. If Percy can saturate an ordinary mountain with extraordinary possibilities, his telescoping of the serious and the clownish, the tawdry and the dignified, and the casual and the climactic, gains the same measure of credibility. Percy's world, unlike that of Sartre, is neither inert nor nauseating. The Last Gentleman glories in the solidity of life. Because events both invite and resist value judgments, they become infinitely rich; everything now takes on potential importance, regardless of its limitations. The effect of this shimmering richness on the human spirit is equally creative. The mind affirms its activity by colliding with other substances: no collision can occur between something and nothing. Percy, finally, describes this activity as freedom by shrinking from terminal judgments. It is not an accident that Bill Barrett acts most boldly during moments of crisis. So long as chance and danger are inescapable, each person has both the privilege and the responsibility of imparting meaning to his life.

Peter Wolfe, "Knowing the Noumenon," in Prairie Schooner (© 1968 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1968, pp. 181-85.

Percy is explicitly conscious of the existentialism of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre…. [That which operates] maliciously to thwart the intensity of our individual satisfaction … for Percy … is "everydayness," that familiarity with life, that cleaving to conventions, habits, and expectations that moves one to act and react automatically on cue in grooves so well-known that one is not conscious of himself, his actions, or his place. This condition is what Heidegger calls "fallenness," the inauthentic existence in which the Dasein hides from itself in the impersonal collective through the distractions of the banal, the trivial, the objective…. When everydayness ceases to prevail, suggests Percy, a sense of strangeness exiles the individual. Uncomfortable as that strangeness may be, however, it invests him with a more vivid sense of himself in his world….

The assumption Binx [the "moviegoer"] makes is that heightened reality comes with heightened consciousness. Movies are, up to a point, the instruments of consciousness. They fix our attention upon the familiar, bringing us to it from another angle. They carry us out of the collective and the impersonal into a "plenary" reality in which we are conscious of the world in ways we never knew before….

The movies Binx uses are analogous to scientific models, not revealing all reality in itself, but illuminating aspects of reality which we would miss without the model and in doing so expanding our awareness and heightening the intensity of our satisfaction. The search he has under-taken is for a reality in which nothing is left over, in which everything is as it might be, if for no longer than a moment. It is the search for satisfaction, and as Percy sees it, it can be carried on only when the mantle of familiar everydayness has been torn away, throwing us out of the conventional, and forcing us to discover ourselves as castaways on an alien shore. Only then does the vivid sense of individuality emerge and we become ourselves in the world: open, risked, unprotected. The movies demonstrate the role in human life played by intellectualizing and abstracting, those functions of the human being that constitute his rebellion against the chaos and the indiscriminateness of nature….

The world, says Percy, clamors for our attention. The "search," in which intellectualizing and abstracting bulk so large, cannot be absolutely and completely successful. In the nature of things, when we come to the end of the line of our intellect, we find nothing there because the full reality of our existence cannot be represented to the intellect. In the end, therefore, Binx is neither defeated nor victorious. He is not forced back into everydayness, but he cannot continue the search in its old form, either. Though he does feel that his "best times" are in the search, the "plenary" reality that lies at its end does not square with the unavoidable encounters one must undergo with the world and the people in it. Intellectual consciousness does raise one from the anonymity of everydayness, but it cannot lead to a paradise in which the real and the ideal, the matter and the form become identical. Something always remains, in human life, left over, unexplained, "transphenomenal." So Binx turns to a compromise. He comes to see that, like Kierkegaard—whom he refers to only as "the great Danish philosopher"—he cannot ever really exist the search, embody it fully in his own life. The best he can do is to "plant a foot in the right place as the opportunity presents itself."

Jerry Bryant, in his The Open Decision (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Open Decision by Jerry Bryant; © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 273-77.

[When] he published The Moviegoer, it was clear that Walker Percy had emerged as the first major Southern voice in 30 years entirely free of the Faulknerian inflection. That in itself was good news. Yet the particular glories of the book were a tone of voice that combined modern dryness and irony with an almost wanton tenderness, and a languid young hero who drifted from years of daydreaming about love to a gradual awareness of the real thing. Percy's second novel, The Last Gentleman (1966), was also about a vague young man, this one afflicted with occasional amnesia.

Subtitled "The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World," Percy's new novel is a rather abrupt departure from the past. The scene is the South. The time is the 1980s, when current polarizations have reached logical conclusions. If the reader's heart sinks upon being confronted with another futuristic novel, it must be said that Percy takes his projections with agreeable lightness. In Love in the Ruins, the population is split into small enclaves of like-minded dissidents: blacks v. whites, knotheads (conservatives) v. liberals. Even the Catholic Church has become a trinity of antagonistic sects. Because no one wants to be a repairman, everything has broken down. Superhighways and shopping centers are enjoying a true "greening"; they are overgrown with weeds….

As a satire the book has something to offend just about everyone. Conservative Catholics, whose spiritual center is Cicero, Ill., celebrate Property Rights Sunday. Among the Reform Schismatics, several divorced priests are importuning the Dutch cardinal to allow them to remarry. Yet the book's purpose is clearly moral….

Underlying the satire is a rueful equanimity and a lingering hope, one sometimes found in both Catholics and Southerners, that there may be a point to the working and watching, that there may be one day a kingdom for the exile.

Martha Duffy, "Lapsometer Legend," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © by Time Inc.), May 17, 1971, p. 94.

[The Moviegoer] was a lean, tartly written, subtle, not very dramatic attack on the wholly bourgeois way of life and thinking in a "gracious" and "historic" part of the South. But instead of becoming another satire on the South's retreat from its traditions, it was, for all the narrator's bantering light tone, an altogether tragic and curiously noble study in the loneliness of necessary human perceptions….

The Moviegoer, essentially a sophisticated search of the search for faith in a world that seems almost bent on destroying it, was not calculated to win great popularity. It was not exactly about going to the movies. It was a brilliant novel about our abandonment, our Geworfenheit, as the existentialists used to say—our cast-off state….

The Moviegoer was, in fact, an odd, haunting, unseizable sort of book. It was not "eccentric," did not overplay tone and incident in the current style—it was as decorous as an old-fashioned comedy of manners. But it was evidently and deeply the expression of some inner struggle. The author himself seemed in some fundamentals to feel himself in the wrong, to be an outsider in relation to his society….

The Southern writer feels that he is still in a state of defeat, of exile, of classic outsidedness and apartness. It is the Southern writer who remains "unreconciled" at a time when dominant elements in the South have become the voice of our spurious Americanism.

Walker Percy belongs with the "defeated" and the "exiled"—one might say that he knows exile and defeat in their purest American state….

A disposition to look at things, at oneself, in a radically new way is very much what happens in both The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman. The violence of Southern history—the violence you can feel in the streets of Greenville today, where stores advertise "Guns and Ammo," where every truck driver seems to have a rifle with him—is not in Percy's books. In each case the protagonist is someone who feels himself in the grip of a profound disorder, and who as a result cultivates the art of looking, examining, taking things in, with an intellectual intensity that clearly has personal significance….

Walker Percy, a philosopher among novelists, is … atypical [both as] a Southerner and Catholic. There is a singularity to his life, to his manifest search for a new religious humanism, there is a closeness to pain and extreme situations, that makes him extraordinarily "sensitive"—to the existentialist theme of life as shipwreck—without suggesting weakness. Percy in his novels touches the rim of so many human mysteries and despairs that one criticism I have is that he remains equidistant from many different problems—psychological, social, Godly—without his getting near enough to use them….

Faith for him seems to express a search rather than something found, a way of seeing, not an end…. He is still looking. "Looking" as a way of life reminds me of a sentence by Simone Weil: Attentiveness without a "goal" is a supreme form of prayer.

Alfred Kazin, "The Pilgrimage of Walker Percy," in Harper's (copyright © 1971, by Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., Inc.; reprinted from the June, 1971 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), June, 1971, pp. 81-6.

[Although] Mr. Percy is a witty and generous man, although his satire is delicate and deft and marvelously comic, it's hard not to be disappointed in Love in the Ruins. The deep perturbations of the soul don't seem deep at all but as tinny as the gadget which measures them. The worst affliction of this Brave New Louisiana is vacancy, and it isn't even felt.

Stephen Goodwin, in Shenandoah, Winter, 1972, p. 76.