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A Walker Percy primer

Books | Remembering the celebrated American novelist on what would have been his 94th birthday

The month of May is a propitious one for fans of Walker Percy.

To begin with, the novelist was born on May 28, 1916. Were he alive today, we would be celebrating his 94th birthday. But alas, he is not alive. He died in 1990, also in May (the 10th). And at least one of his novels, Love in the Ruins, was published in May 1971.

These coincidences of calendar are as good an excuse as any to remember Percy. Love in the Ruins is surely one of his most significant works, and it begins with one of the great opening lines in American literature: "Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?" That this is a brilliant sentence is self-evident. Or rather, if it is not self-evident, there's no explaining it without explaining all of Western civilization, since it summarizes Scripture, Dante, Gibbons, and Flannery O'Connor in one fell and confident swoop.

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For all of the virtues of Love in the Ruins-some say it is Percy's best novel-the work that still is read the most is his first novel: The Moviegoer, published in 1961 and the winner of the National Book Award in 1962. Percy fans know the remarkable backstory-that Percy was a doctor before contracting tuberculosis, likely from his patients. During a long convalescence, he took up writing, and he published his first novel at the age of 45. It's a story to give late-bloomers courage-and don't we all, in some way or another, bloom later than we think we should, or "grow up" later than we ought? Or, to borrow the same line from Dante that Percy borrowed, can't we all say, "Now midway this life, having quite lost my way, I came to myself in the midst of a dark wood"?

Indeed, a modern explication of this line is pretty much what Percy's novels are about. And that first novel, The Moviegoer, needed no backstory to get noticed. This story of Binx Bolling, a stockbroker who lives vicariously through the characters he sees in the movies, struck an immediate chord in a culture increasingly media-saturated and celebrity-driven. Nearly 50 years after its publication, we now see The Moviegoer as prophetic and seminal, with Percy's place in American literature secure.

Later in life, Percy would say that his medical training was excellent preparation for his life as a novelist. Indeed, he wrote that the novelist is essentially a "diagnostician"; he names the pathologies of his patient. The difference being that the novelist's patient is what William Faulkner called "the human heart in conflict with itself." Indeed, at a memorial service for Percy held in New York City a few months after his death, his friend Eudora Welty-not a bad storyteller herself-noted, "The physician's ear and the writer's ear are pressed alike to the human chest."

Of course, Percy the scientist would not be impressed with the calendar coincidences I celebrate this month. After all, there are only 12 months in the year, and he wrote more than a dozen books. The chances are better than even that at least one of them would be published in either the month of his birth, or of his death. But Percy the novelist, I like to think, might have smiled at the ironic possibilities. After all, it was often the odd, random coincidence that jerked Percy characters such as Binx Bolling from their stupor and forced them to sit up with a start, look around, and suddenly notice what in that dark wood they had been missing.

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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