- Gail Wilson Kenna
Words on a Saturday afternoon in a small cottage
where I face sliding glass doors and see budding dogwood and the green lacework of leafing trees.
On the table is a Last Page column that I tore from Commonweal in 2015. My filing system is to place an article inside a relevant book. I found this folded piece in The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. (Note: This week the RCC-RILL experimental book club will read this novel along with Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate.)
The article I have in hand is “The 4 p.m. Blues,” by Edward Dupuy, written eight years ago to honor the 25th anniversary of Walker Percy’s death. Dupuy discusses a later novel, not Percy’s first published novel, The Moviegoer. Decades earlier I read Love in the Ruins, but I no longer have the novel. I loan books and often don’t get them back, which is okay until something makes me want to return to a novel.
The subtitle of Love in the Ruins is, “The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World.” This I hope gives the comic flavor of the writer, Walker Percy. Please note this accomplished writer completed medical school but did not practice medicine. Think of other famous writers who combined science and art: Anton Chekhov, a practicing doctor and literary great, William Carlos Williams, a physician and poet, and my literary hero, Dr. Robert Coles. He is a psychiatrist and the author of a staggering number of books, including a biography of Percy.
The narrator of Love in the Ruins is Dr. Tom More (Sir Thomas More!), who has invented the “lapsometer.” He wonders if his device might win him the Nobel Prize! What does More’s invention do? It can probe the secrets of the soul and identify maladies that poison man’s hope. (Malraux, by the way, wrote Man’s Hope after Man’s Fate.)
Since I no longer have Love in the Ruins, I will borrow from Dupuy’s one-page piece. He explains that when the novel begins, Bantu guerrillas take over the Paradise Estates Country Club. This I remember, but not that narrator Tom More says, “These are bad times. Principalities and power are everywhere victorious. Wickedness flourishes in high places.” (These days I’m almost comforted by what doesn’t change.)
For decades I have read Commonweal but did not know that Walker Percy regularly wrote essays for this Catholic magazine. Then in the late 1950s, Percy came to believe that art, in particular the novel, might be a better way to identify maladies of our times. On the table in front of me is a 2019 New Yorker article: “We Still Live Within the Mediated Alienated World of The Moviegoer,” by Paul Elie. Which is to say that Percy’s literature has not lost its relevance. Whether there are readers for it is another question.
May 10th will be the 32nd year since his death. The Moviegoer is a short and disquieting novel. It amuses and enlightens, entertains and yet is highly serious. Each time I read this novel I am moved to read it again. Robert Coles in his biography, Walker Percy: An American Search, states that he would be embarrassed to admit how many times he read The Moviegoer in the early 1960s. Thank you Dr. Coles for saying this.
Next week: I hope to have my anti-malaise Miata back from the body shop.