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Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy
by jay tolson
simon & schuster, 544 pages, $27.50

The greatest challenge the biographer faces is to grasp and reveal the inner life of his subject. His task is simplified when he chooses a subject visibly engaged in great public events of his time—wars, politics, social reform, for example. If the biographer is good at what he does, he will use these public activities to illuminate the inner life of his subject while using that same inner life—the subject’s genius, if you will—to illuminate great events of his time. Each fact used, each incident related, must contribute to a vivid picture of a person the reader will feel he knows when he has finished the book. The less speculation the author engages in, and the more concretely he documents his subject’s life, the livelier this sense of knowledge will be.

In Walker Percy (1916–1990), novelist, philosopher, Southern gentleman, Jay Tolson has chosen a most difficult subject. Aside from some involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s—and even that was pretty marginal—Percy’s life was almost entirely inward. He sought privacy and lived out of the public eye. In 1948, when he found Covington, the little suburb of New Orleans where he lived until his death, he said, “I took one look around, sniffed the ozone, and exclaimed—unlike Brigham Young—‘This is the nonplace for me!’“ In this “nonplace” Percy wrote his eight books (six novels and two collections of essays), raised his two daughters, suffered what he called “middle-aged depression . . . plus a Percyean disposition toward melancholia,” drank too much bourbon, listened to a lot of music, and lived in close, complex, and harmonious companionship with his wife, Bunt.

In this biography, Jay Tolson reveals an admirable understanding of the ideas and traditions underlying Percy’s work and a moving admiration for Percy’s achievement. Unfortunately, however, he seems to feel that he must conscientiously report every fact known about Percy’s ancestors and about his relatively uneventful life, including details about pets, picnics, weekend trips, and the like that contribute little to our knowledge of the real Walker Percy. It is also unfortunate that he relies so heavily on paraphrase: direct descriptions of Percy by friends, and especially Percy’s self-characterizations, are more pointed and interesting than anything Tolson offers. For example, here is Percy’s comment on a profile of him written by Robert Coles:

I think . . . [Coles] is projecting a good deal of himself, a kind of good-hearted Colesian decency which may apply to him but not exactly to me. I feel a good deal more malevolent, oblique, phony, ironical, and, I hope, more entertaining . . . . What little I accomplish seems to get accomplished through a peculiar dialectic of laziness, malice, and self-centeredness.

The major events of Walker Percy’s life are quickly set forth: the depression and suicide of his father; his mother’s death two years later; his adoption by a cousin, “Uncle” Will Percy; medical training, contracting TB, and the decision not to practice medicine; marriage; conversion to Catholicism. Uncle Will, the embodiment of Southern culture—defender of traditions, poet, gracious host—was a major influence on Percy. He gave the fifteen-year-old Percy a safe haven when he was orphaned and surrounded him with books and music. In Percy’s words: “I might even say that everything I am interested in writing about is a result of the impact of Uncle Will’s worldview upon me and what was germinated as a result of the ferment that followed.” It was from Uncle Will’s beliefs and attitudes about race relations in the South that Percy spent many years disengaging himself.

According to his friend Shelby Foote, it was around the time of Percy’s conversion to Roman Catholicism (1947) that his attitudes about race relations began to change. Nine years later Percy’s essay, “Stoicism in the South,” appeared in Commonweal. In this essay Percy plays out his argument with Uncle Will’s “benign paternalism,” the Stoic view, maintaining that “The concern for fairness in the ‘traditional worldview of the upper-class white Southerner’ came not from the belief that other people were made in the image of God but from the conviction that doing others an injustice was a breach of personal honor.” What Percy had come to understand is that the increasing demands of blacks—“insolence” in the eyes of the Stoics—“is in the Christian scheme the sacred right which must be accorded the individual, whether deemed insolent or not.” Characteristically emphasizing the ambiguity of his position, Percy wrote, “[no white Southerner] can write a j’accuse without making a mea culpa.

The many years Walker Percy spent reading deeply in philosophy and writing essays are thoroughly documented by Jay Tolson. Indeed, they were important and formative years, but as they passed, it became clear that Percy’s genius was not as a philosopher. “Nobody reads these things,” he said to his wife about his philosophical essays. “I need to put some of the things I’m saying into a novel so that people will read them.” He spent the rest of his life writing the novels that are his remarkable legacy. Critics have attempted to place Percy’s novels in a tradition. They are recognizably “Southern,” “existentialist” (whatever that means, Percy would have said), “philosophical,” “comic.” But these elements are mixed together into a brew wholly unlike any other.

Jay Tolson identifies one of Percy’s preoccupations: “Why is man so sad in the twentieth century?” Alienation and rootlessness; an unfortunate faith that science can solve all problems; in Percy’s words, the “loss of individuality and . . . identity at the very time when words like ‘the dignity of the individual’ and ‘self-realization’ are being heard more frequently than ever,” are characteristic themes of his novels. Percy describes the story of a character in one of his unpublished novels as “the progress of the neurotic toward a dreadful grey neutrality from which he cannot escape.” Percy is a genius of bleakness. From an unpublished novel, this dialogue between two men in a TB sanitorium:

“What’s the matter, Willy?”
“I don’t know, Scanlon. I’m homesick.”
“How long have you been homesick?”
“All my life.”

Many of Percy’s characters are homesick for a home they never had. In analyzing this homesickness, Percy refers to himself as a “pathologist [as indeed he was before he abandoned medicine for literature] . . . with his suspicion that something is wrong.” What singles out Percy the pathologist is that he carries out his investigation in the context of “the Judeo-Christian notion that man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim.” Percy made this remark in his speech accepting the National Book Award for his first published novel, The Moviegoer. A few weeks later, in a letter to his literary mentor, Caroline Gordon, he discussed his main problem as a fiction writer:

Actually I do not consider myself a novelist but a moralist or a propagandist. My spiritual father is Pascal (and/or Kierkegaard). And if I also kneel before the altar of Lawrence and Joyce and Flaubert, it is not because I wish to do what they did, even if I could. What I really want to do is to tell people what they must do and what they must believe if they want to live.

In the novels Percy combines this moral zeal with the penetrating eye of the pathologist, a wit both sharp and harsh, a dazzlingly accurate ear for dialogue, a zany sense of humor, and a sense of both the dailiness and the apocalyptic possibilities of human life. Jay Tolson calls him a “connoisseur of catastrophes.” Though his characters may suffer from anomie, there is nothing lukewarm about the novels themselves. They are weird tales full of passion, venom, disasters, adventures, illnesses mental and physical, philosophical musings and confrontations.

Events, places, and people from Percy’s life are frequently recognizable in the novels. Particularly amusing, once you know about Percy’s allergies, are his many extravagant descriptions of characters in the throes of reactions to the same substances he was allergic to. In The Last Gentleman, “the oaks . . . turned yellow with pollen . . . . He [the protagonist] contracted dreadful hay fever and sat all summer, elbows propped on the conference table, tears running down his cheeks. His nose swelled up like a big white grape and turned violet inside.” Later he held “his great baboon’s nose in a handkerchief.” Most of the time, though, the autobiographical references hold no more than an academic interest, perhaps not enough to justify what is a dogged recital of every ascertainable fact of Percy’s outwardly uneventful life.

It could perhaps be maintained that it is impossible to put a person down on paper. After seeing Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, I read many biographies of Mozart. The more I read, the more elusive Mozart the man seemed, and I ended up thinking that the Mozart I know through his music—a brilliant, tender, witty magician who expresses a piercing knowledge of tragedy—is more “real” and more interesting than any of those portraits on paper. Reading Jay Tolson’s portrait of Walker Percy has led me to reread his novels. In them I experience a different and a more immediate knowledge of this brilliant and utterly original writer.

Molly Finn is a writer living in New York City.