The Abiding Mystery: A Profile of Walker Percy

By Cheaney, J. B. | The World and I, February 2004 | Go to article overview

The Abiding Mystery: A Profile of Walker Percy

Cheaney, J. B., The World and I

J.B. Cheaney is the author of The Playmaker and The True Prince. Her third novel, Hazel Anderson's War, will be published in late 2004.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and doesn't miss a trick.

Thus does Binx Bolling instigate the action of Walker Percy's first novel, The Moviegoer. Unlike many existential heroes, Binx lives in a world that's not too bad. He earns good money in a job that makes few demands on him; he has no trouble getting dates and is continually meeting nice people. In spite of traumatic events that might have sent a less phlegmatic temperament around the bend, he remains agreeable. The only problem is that he's a dead man living in a dead world. Life is in the movies, where recognizable types play out old verities that used to be taught in church. But periodically Binx wakes up, like the castaway, to a strange and mysterious world. Everything may look the same, but he has changed. He's onto something. "Not to be onto something is to be in despair."

After encountering this character in more than one Percy novel, it's tempting to associate him with Percy himself, or at least to imagine the author's gently worn features and calm blue eyes in the face of Will Barrett or Dr. Tom More. He's like a friend who listens more than he talks, so pleasantly one may think he's in agreement. But then, a sideways glance or slight furrowing of brow raises the suspicion that he's listening on another level--perhaps, one might think, he's onto me. Highly possible, for Percy's abiding interest, which he acquired early and never abandoned, was the mystery at the heart of all human existence.

His own existence began auspiciously, on May 28, 1916, smack in the middle of a prominent southern family. His father, LeRoy, conducted a successful law practice in Birmingham, where he married Martha Susan Phinizy, who gave him three sons: Walker, LeRoy, and Phinizy. But tragedy struck in 1929, when Mr. Percy shot himself in the attic of the family home.

Such a shattering event must have affected the boys profoundly, especially the oldest. He never talked about it publicly, but in his novels fathers are shadowy figures--always distracted, looking away to some unrealized ideal.

Shortly after, the family accepted an invitation to move in with William Alexander Percy in Greenville, Mississippi. "Mister Will" was the late LeRoy Percy's first cousin, who occupied a big house and possessed a sterling reputation as gardener, lawyer, traveler, and man of letters. Two years after moving to Greenville, Martha Susan Percy drove her car off a bridge and was killed--a possible suicide and another violent experience the author never discussed. W.A. Percy, whom all three boys called Uncle Will, not only kept them but legally adopted them.

What motivated the confirmed bachelor and globe-trotter to take on such a task? "A very strong sense of family," Walker speculated, decades later. "I think maybe he had the notion of giving us the benefit of exposure to him. ... But there was always a sense of conflict. After all, it was a crushing responsibility for somebody like him to take on. I'm always amazed that he did it."

Uncle Will's parenting style emphasized exposure and example over direct instruction. His house was a gathering place of notable figures such as Henry Stack Sullivan, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Vincent Benet, and William Faulkner (who played tennis in the backyard when he was sober). But the boys needed peer companionship, too; Greenville native Shelby Foote recalls an afternoon at the country club pool when the august Mister Will approached and recruited him to be a pal for his young relatives. Foote, then thirteen, formed an especially close relationship with Walker, and the two remained friends for life. …

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