On a recent journey to my native Louisiana, I felt the presence of Walker Percy when going past the interstate exit sign for Covington, the small town across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans where Percy made his home.
I'd thought Percy all but forgotten these days. Back in Atlanta after my Louisiana weekend, I was delighted at New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner comparing J. Bradford Hipps' debut novel "The Adventurist" to Percy's "The Moviegoer."
Although Percy wrote a number of other novels, he'll always mainly be remembered for "The Moviegoer," his first novel and unexpected National Book-Award winner.
Binx Bolling, a Southern Archetype
The novel's protagonist, Binx Bolling, the scion of an old New Orleans family, defined a late 20th century Southern archetype, a dreamy son of wealth and privilege who lacks the killer business gene and country club/chamber of commerce bonhomie.
A less conflicted descendant of Faulker's doomed Quentin Compson, Binx enjoys escaping from the city's splendid sunlight into dark movie theaters and taking aimless road trips with attractive young women.
Binx displays brilliant powers of observation in his descriptions of his family and their New Orleans upper-class milieu while offering detailed and humorous self-reflection. Percy's first-person voice, reminiscent of Camus' "The Stranger," achieves the memorable authority of other American speakers: Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Augie Marsh, Portnoy.
While rooted in New Orleans culture, the book also heralded the South's membership in the larger global culture. Percy's biggest influence was Paris existentialists, and "The Moviegoer" restored New Orleans' connection with its founding French culture.
"Love in the Ruins" Also a Classic
While "The Moviegoer" was one of my essential novels, I first discovered Percy though his "Love in the Ruins," a cult favorite among LSU's small group of students who read novels and the latest "new journalism."
I'll always associate Percy with my late dear friend Loftin Sproles, who revered Percy and introduced me to Percy's work. Loftin told me about "Love in the Ruins," a futuristic novel that eerily diagnosed the nation's unresolved racial conflicts. Its heart-racing denouement about a black sniper atop a New Orleans hotel foreshadowed a similar real-life event.
Loftin and I also loved Percy's "The Last Gentleman," seeing it as a philosophical model for our lives. Loftin, who resembled Percy in looks and his ironic view of life, was thrilled at being selected for aspecial guest class that Percy taught at LSU.
Late Works Weakened by Propaganda
I read Percy's later works, but found them weakened by his increasing conservatism. His adherence to Catholicism and its pro-life philosophy made his last novel, "The Thanatos Syndrome," too much of a propaganda vehicle.
Percy always considered himself a "novelist of ideas," but his early books achieved a balance with narrative artistry. Even his weakest novels retained vivid scenes and characters, but tipped too far toward advocacy.
I've wondered what Percy's view would be of the current conflicts between gay rights and conservative religious values. He'd probably show more sympathy to the conservative position than most writers.
Yet, I imagine he'd see the wave of Southern legislation limiting gay rights as an improper intrusion of politics into private lives. Gay marriage would appall him, but so would the dishonest, self-righteous bombast of Southern politicians.
Percy would take a reasoned, moderate position, subtly satirizing both sides. A cultured voice like his is lacking in today's political and intellectual climate.