Walker Percy, Among Others

Before we retire the current article recommendation in Doug’s Picks (right-hand column on this page), I have a few reflections on Shelby Foote’s close friend Walker Percy. One of the great American novelists of the twentieth century, Percy learned from Faulkner (a little higher up in the right-hand column), but emulated him more in story-telling ability than in style. Percy’s writing is leaner and more precisely layered than Faulkner’s. Nonetheless, it is rich in moral and philosophical allusions and metaphors if you care to acknowledge them. If you don’t, you can just follow the story. Perhaps that is true of all great novelists but James Joyce. You could even read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow as a wacky tale about madcap characters caught in World War Two, but it would require a serious effort of idea aversion.
At any rate, after I first posted the little piece about Slate’s obituary of Foote, I received this message from Marc Edelman, the culturally aware proprietor of Sharp Nine Records:

If you’re on to Shelby Foote, I’m sure you’re on to Walker Percy.
1. The Moviegoer
2. Love in the Ruins
3. The Last Gentleman
4. Lancelot

I’m a long-time Percy addict. I’ve read everything of his; The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman many times. (See page 151 of Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.)I wasn’t surprised that Paul liked The Moviegoer. He and its main character had a good deal in common, not least the acceptance, even a certain satisfaction in accepting, that loneliness on one level or another comes as part of the package when you want to live a truly individual life.
I keep Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book close at hand, on the shelf with The Messsage in the Bottle; two fine books about Percy by Robert Coles and Panthea Reid Broughton; and Lanterns on the Levee, by William Alexander Percy, the uncle who raised Walker Percy and guided his intellectual and moral development.
Walker Percy was a medical doctor, a philosopher, a Christian existentialist, a Catholic and a Southerner. All of those elements churned within him, sometimes intermixing, sometimes separating like oil and water, always spurring his search for authenticity, a search like that of Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer. Binx thought,

…the search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life….to become of aware of the possibiity of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

Percy was onto something.
When I was doing radio and television news at WDSU in New Orleans in the last half of the sixties, I spoke now and then with Dr. Percy, who lived across Lake Pontchartrain in Covington. Between the 6 and 10 pm television newscasts, I did a radio talk show (before the genre was trashed by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk). Often, authors were guests. Percy listened to it regularly and told me that he liked it. After several conversations and considerable cajoling, I talked him into coming on. The day before he was scheduled, he called and said he couldn’t do it. That is, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was too shy.
Percy’s, and Foote’s, friend Hodding Carter II did come on, by telephone, and talked about what it was like to run the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times with Mississippi in the throes of the civil rights struggle and three-quarters of white Mississippians hoping he’d be lynched or shot, many of them eager to do it themselves. It was typical of Carter’s graceful heroism that he talked frankly about his battle against racism while the battle was raging and he knew that his enemies were listening. That was one of the best hours of radio in which I was ever involved. When it ended, Walker Percy called and said maybe he’d made a mistake not appearing. But he didn’t offer to change his mind. I left New Orleans as the sixties ended and never spoke with Percy again, to my regret. He died in 1990.

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