Novel's Ending and World's End: The Fiction of Walker Percy
Chesnick, Eugene, Hollins Critic
When Walker Percy was interviewed for the Southern Review after his first two novels, The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman, had made his reputation enough that his opinions mattered, he could talk about his own work as within the conventions of realistic representation. Both characters and setting were recognizable, he thought. His characters still behaved in such a way as to satisfy the reader's demands for believing that such people could exist. He disassociated himself from the French anti-novelists with their preoccupation with objects alone and expressed reservations about John Barth's claim that the traditional story with people involved in each other's lives is no longer possible. So it is with considerable surprise that we discover that his latest novel, Love in the Ruins, should be an experiment in fantasy, should be a piece of science-fiction, even. That this should prove so provides us with a particularly instructive case in changing narrative method and in the sense of what makes a good story in contemporary fiction. In Percy's instance these changes take place within the single writing lifetime of a novelist of genuine talent and originality.
If Percy had previously avoided experimentalism, he had also shunned apocalypticism. In a now well-known essay, "The Man on the Train", published in 1956 in the Partisan Review before any of his fiction had appeared, Percy complains about the way we intensify our rhetoric in order to redeem the ordinariness of our lives. Even the threat of atomic warfare can result in an exaggerated sense of our unique place in history. Percy poses what he takes to be the more difficult predicament. "The real anxiety question, the question no one asks because no one wants to, is the reverse: What if the Bomb should not fall? What then?" In the essay he dismisses what he calls "the heart's desire of the alienated man," which is "to see vines sprouting through the masonry," but in Love in the Ruins he seems to have succumbed himself. He sets the novel in the future, but not too far in the future, only 1983, one year before the accepted date of doom in literary circles. In the hot moist South which is Percy's homeland the vines have taken over the modern structures very quickly, the interstate highways, the Howard Johnsons, the drive-in movies. "Poison ivy has captured the speaker posts in the drive-in movie, making a perfect geometrical forest of short cylindrical trees." Percy has turned the substantial descriptive gifts he had displayed in the other novels to the new use of satiric fantasy.
Percy had been reading, as it turns out, Waiter M. Miller, Jr.'s doomsday science-fiction novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz. It is the book he recommends in Rediscoveries, a collection of essays by practicing writers on books they consider neglected and worth further critical examination. Its value, he estimates, "lies in the successful marriage of a subliterary pop form with a subject of transliterary import. Literature, in a sense, is simply leapfrogged. Katherine Mansfield is bypassed." He is more sympathetic towards experimental fiction in general, towards what he calls in a review of Richard Hughes' The Fox in the Attic "the mid-century itch to do something with a novel besides plotting with people."
In America as it has become in Love in the Ruins, when cars no longer run, they are simply abandoned. The entire country is divided. Political liberals and conservatives live in their own strongholds, often fortified. The Catholic Church, Percy's own church, is now three instead of one: the American Catholic Church, whose fundamental concern is the sacredness of private property, the Dutch schismatics, and the small remnant of Roman Catholics. Sniper-fire has become commonplace; the local peace is further threatened by a group of black revolutionaries called bantus and by white dropouts living in a swamp. In the middle of all this confusion is Dr. Thomas More, alcoholic, given to excessive "mood swings," suicidal even, but no more so now than the country as a whole. …