Monday, May 18, 2015

Rereading Walker Percy

It seems to me that one of Walker Percy hints at one of his strengths early in The Moviegoer:
.. "We'll not see their like again. The age of the Catos is gone. Only my Jules is left. And Sam Yerger. Won't it be good to see Sam again?
This is absurd of course. Uncle Jules is no Cato. And as for Sam Yerger: Sam is only a Cato on long Sunday afternoons and in the company of my aunt. She transfigures everyone. Mercer she still sees as the old retainer. Uncle Jules she sees as the Creole Cato,, the last of the heroes--whereas the truth is that Uncle Jules is a canny Cajun straight from Bayou Lafourche, as canny as a Marseilles merchant and a very good fellow, but no Cato. All the stray bits and pieces of the past, all that is feckless and gray about people, she pulls together into an unmistakable visage of the heroic or the craven, the noble or the ignoble. So strong is she that sometimes the person and the past are in fact transfigured by her. Uncle Jules has come to see himself as the Creole member of the gens, the Beauregard among the Lees. Mercer is on occasions not distinguishable from an old retainer. Truthfully, I do not know, and Mercer does not know, what Mercer really is.
In 1961, Walker Percy knew how quite a few people talked: women like the aunt, Emily Bolling Cutrer, born to property and authority about 1900; her Vassar-educated stepdaughter; the speakers on "This I Believe"; screenwriters for the movies or TV; New Orleans newsstand operators; Midwestern veterans; and many more. He well deserved his National Book Award. He did not lose his ear as he got older; the voices in The Second Coming are believable.

The one voice he did not seem to hear well enough was his own, that of a Catholic existentialist novelist. I found it increasingly doubtful as the years went on. I would sum it up by saying that Walker Percy was good at depicting what he found wanting--"This I Believe", the Phil Donahue Show, bad 1970s TV--but not clear on the alternatives. The apophatic mode is useful and necessary in theology, but I don't know that it gets one far in fiction.

Still, there is The Moviegoer. I bought the copy I now have, when I found that NPR had revived "This I Believe", for the one paragraph
I did not always enjoy This I Believe. While I was living at my aunt's house, I was overtaken by a fit of perversity. But instead of writing a letter to the editor, as was my custom, I recorded a tape which I submitted to Mr. Edward R. Murrow. "Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans," it began, and ended, "I believe in a good kick in the ass. This--I believe." I soon regretted it, however, as what my grandfather would have called a "smart-alecky stunt" and I was relieved when the tape was returned. I have listened faithfully to This I Believe ever since.

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