"Ineffable Sociabilities": Criss-Crossing, Game-Playing, and Sight-Seeing with Walker Percy in His Delta

By Rudnicki, Robert W. | Southern Quarterly, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

"Ineffable Sociabilities": Criss-Crossing, Game-Playing, and Sight-Seeing with Walker Percy in His Delta


Rudnicki, Robert W., Southern Quarterly


You SEE THEM EVERYWHERE you drive. Bumperstickers. Rear window decals. Personalized license plates. They solicit our attention the second we get behind the wheel. To put it delicately, inane signs and messages adorn a surprising number of automobiles in the contemporary rural South, to such a degree that commuters begin to recognize silent dialogues-usuallyjuvenile or didactic-speeding past one another, even arguing with and reacting to one another in ways that are meant to draw attention or pass for wit. Road graffiti, or road culture, if we may call it that, is far from a regional phenomenon, but does seem to be particularly colorful in the South, especially when it comes to its odd pastiche of religious, historical, and avocational references. Take, for instance, some of today's actual bumperstickers, all of which I routinely see in small Southern towns and on farm roads, the kind that might have elicited a reaction from a novelist and culture critic like Walker Percy or have found a way into his writing, which often includes references to automobiles and "road trips" of one kind or another: after the laughable caution of the imperative which read "FEAR ME," came the defiant and equally egocentric rejoinder of "AIN'T SKEERED," a retort which was only shortly preceded by the "plaine style" of the puritanical "FEAR GOD," itself only recently followed by a return to Jeremiah's more comforting assurance as seen in the sticker that reads "FEAR NOT." These kinds of signs and messages always remind me of Percy and his appreciation for Flannery O'Connor's remarks about the difficulty of faith and subsequently of narrative when everyone else is shouting it, as well as how the blind sometimes require large, simple caricatures in order to see. During the great highway debate over one of life's eternal questions-which truck is better: Ford or Chevrolet?-a Snopesian entrepreneur once had the incredibly vulgar idea to represent Calvin of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip as maniacally defiling one of the automobile maufacturer's corporate logos. It wasn't long before that same Calvin had seen the error of his ways, repented, and was kneeling with humility and reverence at the foot of a cross instead, giving us born-again bumperstickers, or in that case, rear window decals. After NASCAR figure Dale Earnhardt's racing death, the number three appeared in all shapes and sizes on vehicles paying him tribute as they passed by. Now it is not uncommon to see a smaller number eight-that of his son Dale Earnhardt,Jr., who has taken up his father's mantlesuperimposed on one corner of these threes, an attempt to elevate stock car tragedy to mythic status by invoking the Nicene Creed's Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

All are images and shadows of postmodern things. Other attention-grabbing decals may depict the thorny white antlers of a great buck spread across the entire length of a rear window as starkly and imposingly as the battle paint of a Visigoth, or two inverse silhouettes of a duck's head, like Rubin's vase-face illusion sans the illusion, perhaps with a helpful explanatory couplet such as, "IF IT FLIES, IT DIES." The signs and icons of these naturalists always remind me of when Boon Hogganbeck treed dozens of squirrels at the conclusion of "The Bear" because all the big game, along with the big woods, was disappearing. Yet to date, I have not seen any squirrel silhouette decals. Still other stickers depict tigers, bulldogs, swine, and additional mascots of academia beside their corresponding acronyms. Paw prints are especially plenteous. Dr. Percy, only partially tongue in cheek, called this identification the "totemic" option of placing oneself in the world: "QUESTION: What are you? ALEUT INDIAN: I am a bear. QUESTION: What are you? MOVIE ACTRESS: I'm a Leo" (Lost in the Cosmos 110-11). So Hondas, Dodges, and Fords, we are told, are in truth lions, tigers, and bears biding their time until the next big game. Personalized license plates are equally pervasive and expressive in the South, and the Mississippi Delta Percy came to know is certainly not exempt. …

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