A young Walker Percy was traveling in Germany on summer break when he ran into trouble in Bonn. A procession of Nazis, including Adolf Hitler, was passing by when a soldier struck the staring Percy twice across the head. Puzzled, Percy turned to see his assailant extend his arm and call out, "Heil, Hitler." Percy made haste to do the same. The soldier was angry, Percy realized, "because I had not saluted his god with all due respect."
Hitler would turn out to be the first of many gods Percy refused to salute. Other deities he encountered would appear far more abstract and less sinister, but they had their own share of horrors. Percy declined to worship at the temple of science, of consumerism or materialism, of ideology or behaviorist theory. That way lay sickness unto death.
Or at least despair. Percy couldn't help noticing that the worship of these new, improved gods, with its liturgy of "emotional fulfillment," "personal growth" and "consciousness raising" resulted in something less than paradise. The face of one who has come to the end of his consumption and "personal growth," he said, is one of sadness and anxiety. A broader perspective was, if anything, worse: This, the most scientifically advanced century in human history, had turned out to be perhaps the most inhuman and murderous.
So the protagonists of Percy's novels, and to a certain extent the author himself, are left to wander like pilgrims through a bizarre landscape looking for signs of real salvation. For Percy, that meant the Roman Catholic Church and the bosky bite of bourbon on a Wednesday afternoon. For his characters, it meant open rebellion against the false faiths of the modern world.
Patrick Samway, a Jesuit priest who helped celebrate Percy's funeral Mass in 1990, has produced a biography of the man that attempts to capture his "search" down to the smallest details. Also the editor of a marvelous collection of Percy's essays, titled "Signposts in a Strange Land," Father Samway traces the Percy family back generations before the novelist was born and brings us all the way down to the writer's death from cancer - with his friends, such as famed Civil War author Shelby Foote, by his side. Father Samway follows Percy through one family and personal calamity after another - calamities that would shadow, but not prevent, his ultimate triumph.
"Tragedy pursues the Percy family like nemesis," one observer said. His father committed suicide at the age of 40, and his mother drowned when her car went off a bridge. The novelist himself endured a long bout with tuberculosis that effectively ended his plans to be a physician. One of his daughters was born deaf.
But the tragedy was not total. After his father's death, the family went to live with Walker's uncle, Will Percy - war hero, planter, poet and lawyer - whose Greenville, Miss., house was a Southern salon through which literary luminaries such as William Faulkner passed. It was in Greenville that Percy met Mr. Foote, who would be his lifelong friend. Later, when TB forced idleness upon him, he read countless books that would serve him as he sat down to write his own.
But even before Percy became ill, it is evident he was not wholly well. …