Twenty years ago—May 10, 1990—the corpse of the writer Walker Percy was pulled from his bed. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of that moment, then and now, is the absence of the smell of gunpowder.
Percy’s father and grandfather both ended their lives in suicide. The writer who is, arguably, best considered to be Percy’s literary heir, John Kennedy Toole, was dead by his own hand before Percy ever read the manuscript of his then-unpublished genius comedy, Confederacy of Dunces.
Percy’s writings are filled with a sense of melancholy, a melancholy that critics often tie together with his so-called “existentialist” themes.
But, twenty years ago, Percy went to be with his Lord, as a Christian bearing the ravages of sickness—not as a suicide statistic. Why?
Others have sought to argue that the difference for Walker Percy was medical or sociological or even historical (he didn’t bear as directly the regional loss of honor that came with the South’s defeat in the Civil War or the global loss of innocence that came with World War I). These probably all—in God’s providence—played a role, but more significant, I think, is Percy’s Christian appropriation of the interplay between life and death, hope and despair.
“Death makes honest men of all of us,” says a character in one of Percy’s novels. “It makes people happy to tell the truth after a lifetime of lying.”
Perhaps it was Percy’s lifetime exposure to death—as a childhood victim of suicide and as a doctor trained to serve bodies in progressive bondage to decay—that enabled the writer to speak honestly about the cultural and spiritual suicide all around us.
Much of what we see around us today Walker Percy already wrote about, because he saw them coming from his little room in Covington, Louisiana, long before they arrived. Current debates over embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and the attempt to bio-chemically alter human nature through medicines designed to numb sadness and to deaden guilt, they’re all there in Percy’s fiction. Thanatos Syndrome-like scientists are still feverishly at work in the search for a chemically-accessible Eden. Environmental degradation, political polarization, it’s all there in Percy.
And yet, Percy’s apocalyptic writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, sounds so much different than the faux-apocalypticism of so much contemporary Christian “culture war” rhetoric. It’s direct, yes, about human sin and human guilt. He wasn’t writing to raise money from those who would love to have a “your future is bright” imprimatur for the way things are.
But there’s a hopefulness there. Part of that is because Percy was writing for the human conscience, not to raise direct-mail money from the outraged.
But, more than that, I think Percy’s distinctiveness is partly because he always saw himself as a statistic that didn’t happen. Percy didn’t regard himself, like the praying Pharisee in Jesus’ story, as “above” the temptations he saw destroying his neighbors, and even his most loved ones. Percy walked, and wrote, as one who had received grace.
Perhaps it is appropriate for those who loved his life and work to thank God for giving us such a quirky prophet. Perhaps this month, twenty years after his death, would be a good time for those of us who have been shaped by Percy’s writings to give a copy of one of his books to a younger Christian. By my lights, The Moviegoer is the best of Percy’s fiction, and Signposts in a Strange Land is the best collection of his essays. The collection of letters between Percy and his best friend, the unbelieving but brilliant historian Shelby Foote, is also a good place to start to understand Percy the man.
Read some Percy. Then thank God for the good doctor’s reminder to us that even when there is a wasteland everywhere around us, there is love in the ruins still.