Lost in the Modern Bayous: Getting to Know Walker Percy

by Will Bertain

… and suddenly I am thinking not of Moira but of Samantha, my dead daughter and the times she and I and Doris used to travel in the Auto Age all over the U.S.A. and Samantha would explore the motel and drop coins in every slot. First off she’d have found the Sleep-Eze and fed it a quarter.

Tears spurt from my eyes. Removing a pint of Early Times from my bag, I sit on the humming bed and sip a few drinks.

Why does desire turn to grief and memory strike at the heart? 

- Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins


My very first encounter with the luminously jarring and critically comic mind of Walker Percy was years ago in reading an article, entitled Walker Percy Interviews Himself. Percy starts off the interview with a clear shot across-the-bow, posing the question to himself of “What kind of Catholic are you?”

He answers, “A bad one" – and then follows that up with a sky-dive down a rabbit-hole of questions.

The responses Percy gives are simultaneously sarcastic, blunt, humorous, and highly indicative of a deep Catholicism that is both confident and critical with regards to mankind’s place in the post-Modern world. His self-interview is frightfully honest to a surreal level – but you should really read it for yourself.

Still, it was only after being given a copy of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces by a friend, and reading Percy’s preface to it, that I made the choice to dive into his own literary corpus.

And what a wonderfully strange corpus it is.

In coming to grips with the lassitude of the Modern World in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, sojourning through Louisiana with The Moviegoer's Binx Bolling, and most recently frowning and sighing amidst Love in the Ruins, I have found myself absolutely mesmerized by Percy’s prose. At times, Percy’s talent evokes a combination of the bizarre humor of Evelyn Waugh, crossed with a fair amount of the Southern imagery and descriptions of Flannery O’Connor, then set amidst the technological, tragicomic unreality of the late 20th century with a Chaucerian flair. Others have aptly described him as “the satiric Dostoevsky of the Bayous” (Walker Percy’s New York Times Obituary), which speaks to the intense psychological drama that often gets played out in the various narrators’ heads. In reading Percy, I laughed out loud, I nearly cried, and I often found my brain in all sorts of confusion, in places where truth and the tears of things are all jumbled together.

Percy’s narratives range along through the comic, the bizarre, and the serious in such a way as to capture the frustrating, grace-filled sequence of events that can mark a human life. And, much like a previous author-subject (Waugh), a brief survey of Walker Percy’s own life-story itself abounds with such sequences:

  • He lost his grandfather to suicide.

  • He lost his father to suicide.

  • His mother died in a solo car-crash – a likely suicide.

  • Was raised by his uncle.

  • Grew up friends with Shelby Foote, the noted Civil War historian.

  • Studied to be a doctor.

  • Didn’t much practice medicine, because he…

  • …came down with tuberculosis on account of conducting an autopsy (!)

  • ...that resulted in spending years in a sanatorium.

  • Decided to become writer.

  • Converted to Catholicism, along with his wife.

  • Became successful as a writer, after publication of The Moviegoer.

  • Taught at Loyola University in New Orleans.

  • Where he was badgered for a great length of time by the mother of John Kennedy Toole…

  • …who finally convinced him to read her son’s manuscript.

  • After which he successfully lobbied to have A Confederacy of Dunces published,…

  • … which went on to win the Pulitzer.

  • Died in 1990, as a Benedictine oblate, and was buried on a monastery’s grounds. (What is it with talented and controversial Catholic authors dying in such pious ways anyhow?! Grace abounds, I suppose.)

In encountering the pitfalls of the human experience, Percy’s stories do not shy away from the uncomfortably realistic, and a number of characters’ vocabularies do not hold back from crudeness or vulgarity. Likewise, as the Missus noted to me, many of his characters are pretty bad people – though maybe just as bad as people actually are. Nevertheless, while his main characters sin in a variety of ways, they often live in tension with some sort of strained life-rope leading back to Catholicism – whether they like it or not.

Now, if you are off-put by regularly human, sinful characters trying really hard to fend off redemption, then please, do not pick up his books – read his self-interview and then try to keep a better opinion of the man. But if you are inclined to think that an appreciation of the struggle between sin and grace within this vale of tears can be sharpened by such depictions of that conflict in the trenches… well, still read his self-interview first. Enjoy it. Then, pick up one of his books, preferably while sitting outside in the shade or in the pool with a cold beverage.

You might end up thoughtfully ruminating, or sighing fretfully, about how your life matches up with the clash of mercy and chaos described in Percy’s novels. Or you might find yourself thanking God that your life no longer does correspond to such descriptions.

And, maybe, between sips and thoughts and laughs and tears, you could pray for me and for yourself to have the grace of Final Perseverance in the Internet Age – as I'd bet Walker Percy would recommend.



Will Bertain