Novelist Walker Percy's essays search for the larger truths

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SIGNPOSTS

IN A STRANGE LAND.

Walker Percy;

edited by Patrick Samway.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

428 pages. $25. For me, this book could not have arrived at a more fortuitous time. We are deep into the summer book season, a time of easy reading -- gossipy biographies, thrillers and mysteries galore, yet more self-help books and tomes about finding the "inner you." Does the hot weather cause us to cease thinking during those days between Memorial Day and Labor Day, or is it just that vacation time tends to put everything remotely serious on hold?

Whatever, this collection of essays and lectures by one of our distinguished American writers is a welcome appearance. In these works, written over a period of 55 years, Percy is by turns probing and playful, implacably searching for larger truths and then viewing man's foibles with amused detachment. He is as elusive in these pages as he was in his fiction, and nearly as fascinating.

Walker Percy (1916-1990) was perhaps best known as a novelist. He wrote six novels, and his extraordinary first book, "The Moviegoer," won the 1962 National Book Award; "Love in the Ruins" (1971) and "Lancelot" (1977) are only slightly less regarded. Percy's background was unusual for a novelist. He came late to writing -- "The Moviegoer" was published when he was 45. A physician with a bent for philosophy and religious inquiry (he was a converted Roman Catholic), he was in interviews as likely to quote Kirkegaard as Faulkner. His writings were rooted in the South, as befitting a lifelong Southerner, but Percy's protagonists were rootless, alienated.

In his novels, we sense Percy's attempt to integrate his religious, philosophical and scientific ponderings into a system of thought that might explain the predicament of modern man. This is readily apparent in "Signposts in a Strange Land." In his introduction to this book, Patrick Samway -- a Jesuit, literary scholar and friend of Percy's -- observes that the writer "tried not to compartmentalize his life and work. As with Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., a scientist and priest whose works (as he once told me) he admired, Percy himself strove for greater unity of vision in his life."

Thus, one of three subdivisions in "Signposts" is titled "Science, Language, Literature," and it is in these essays and lectures that Percy was at his most earnest. In "Diagnosing the Modern Malaise," he sets out to explore the condition of modern man, how it developed, and the role of the novelist in explaining it. A writer of fiction may not seem the person to help give meaning in such a time, he concedes. But he concludes, "In a new age where things and people are devalued, when meanings break down, it lies within the province of the novelist to start the search afresh, like Robinson Crusoe on his island. Tree bark may seem a humble place to start. But one must start somewhere."

Percy is as probing, but with much more biting humor, in "How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic" -- to my mind, the finest essay in this book. In it, he ruminates on being Catholic, a Southerner and a Catholic Southern writer; on Southern literature and whether it really exists, contemporary Jewish writers, the state of modern literature in general, a billionaire who boasts he's never read a novel, and the decline of literacy "accompanied by a rise in philistinism in America. . . ." That's a lot to absorb in 17 pages, but Percy seldom disappoints. Consider:

"The Southern asset was always the presence of tradition, both Christian and Greco-Roman, which was palpable enough so that even in its decadence there was something of substance to get ahold of, to attack, the crumbling porticos, the gentry gone to seed like Faulkner's Compsons. And to defend: so that a Catholic writer like Flannery O'Conner could find herself nourished by the extravagant backwoods Protestant fundamentalism of Georgia.

"What does the Northern novelist have to attack or defend? Republicans? A defunct liberalism? And when he attacks or defends, who cares? What does John Irving have to defend? Or attack? Circus bears? A dog with a cute name like Sorrow? A bear with the cute name State o'Maine who can drive a motorcycle?"

As for the contemporary Southern writer, he notes the changes in the landscape, the society as a whole with the rise of the Sun Belt and a gradual homogenization of America in general. So what does a Southerner write about? Again, Percy provides no easy answer: "I'm afraid he's on his own. His freedom and opportunities are so great that it scares him. He can't go back to sharecroppers' cabins and crumbling mansions haunted by Confederate ghosts. Yet he probably lives in a teeming Sunbelt community, with an ethnic mix, an amalgam of economic prosperity and spiritual dislocation which is the very stuff of fiction. Take this fellow, this Midwesterner transplanted to Louisiana who has made two billion dollars from oil leases and has never read a novel, who lives in an antebellum mansion in New Orleans and who is so absorbed in deal-making that he is a stranger to his friends and family. Maybe he can't use me, but I can sure use him."

Percy is especially engaging in the first group of essays, "Life in the South." His writings on New Orleans are both sardonic and affectionate: "When the French Quarter is completely ruined by the tourists -- and deserted by them -- it will again be a good place to live."

Some pieces don't work particularly well. A few "serious" essays are ponderous and slow-going; some lighter essays, such as "Questions They Never Asked Me," a 1978 "self-interview," veer toward the glibness and facile thinking that Percy occasionally fell into (as in his 1983 non-fiction book, "Lost in the Cosmos"). He becomes too clever by half, disappointing for one who was such a rigorous, original thinker.

Still, "Signposts in a Strange Land" is filled with wonderful writing that consistently moves the reader. There is much to savor -- and to celebrate.

Mr. Warren is Book Editor of The Sun.

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