A Conspiracy of Dunces? Walker Percy's Humor and the Chance of a Last Laugh. (Essay)

Article excerpt

For the first time in my life I have met the system face to face, fully determined to function within its context as an observer and critic in disguise, so to speak.--Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, p. 86

I've read the excerpt from A Confederacy of Dunces and am most intrigued. The writing is unique but at the same time reminiscent of several contemporaries I've admired. You allude to Heller; I think too of Pynchon and Barth. I'll refrain from mentioning Percy.--Les Phillabaum, publisher of A Confederacy of Dunces, in a note to Walker Percy dated March 1, 1978

When Walker Percy was buried on May 12, 1990, at St. Joseph's Abbey in Covington, Louisiana, sounds of life intruded on the occasion of his death. Writer Doffs Betts reflected on the scene:

   As the procession moved to the burial spot, its line was crossed by
   some group of Louisiana revelers, a parade really, almost a
   mini-carnival. How Walker Percy would have enjoyed that
   celebration! I can't help hoping the moment was one of those "signs"
   Will Barrett was always looking for, that maybe Walker Percy made
   his wager like Pascal and won it, and had the chance to send back
   from eternity this fleeting, ambiguous merry clue.

Percy had a genial soft spot for Louisiana's freewheeling unpredictability. As a writer who loved a good joke--particularly a cosmic one--he would no doubt have relished the scene. It is hard not to hear some of Percy's voice carrying through in this excerpt from his novel Lancelot: "In New Orleans I have noticed that people are happiest when they are going to funerals, making money, taking care of the dead, or putting on masks at Mardi Gras so nobody knows who they are." (1)

By most accounts, Percy was a hard one to figure. His mercurial temperament--at times as easy-going as a Carolina frat-boy, at other times an incurably moody doctor--left a contradictory legacy for his biographers. It is the lighthearted side of the man that I'd like to sketch briefly. On a sophomoric level, some of Percy's bumptious high jinks with fellow wayfarer Shelby Foote are well documented. As undergrads at the University of North Carolina, while on a Chapel Hill boys'-night-out that terminated in a Durham dive, Percy took a punch intended for Foote--from an outraged woman, no less--and had the good grace to earmark the scene for fictional purposes in The Last Gentleman. After being socked by a woman, Will Barrett gnashes his teeth with a Job-ish complaint: "Oh, hideous exploding goddamnable nose pain, the thump-thud of woe itself. Oh, ye bastards all together." (2)

The Walker Percy archives, housed in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, abound with evidence of Percy's humor, from the self-deprecating to the satiric to the just plain silly. The archives house many of Percy's scribblings (anyone who has seen his handwriting will conclude that this is the right word); one folder is full of scraps from a pocket notepad where Percy jotted down jokes. This one is representative:

   Joke. What do you get when you cross an onion with a jackass?
   Either an onion with floppy ears or a piece of ass so good it makes
   tears come to your eyes.

This is dinner club fare, not exactly a side-splitter. But what I like about the jokes is how they humanize the historical man. To borrow Percy's phrase, the archives illuminate the "man qua man" against the august shrouding of literary commentaries that portray him as an endlessly soul-searching, high-powered intellectual jack-of-all-trades. Of course, he was those things, but he was also a joker.

After all, he once described novelists as "a devious lot to begin with, disinclined to say anything straight out, especially about themselves, and their stock-in-trade is indirection." I have always been tantalized by the possibility that Percy tweaked us with a joke and left a deliberate paper trail. …