In my early twenties, approaching Lent, I opened my first Walker Percy novel. It was Love in the Ruins, and it came into my life days after a dramatic car wreck that had, miraculously, left me nearly without a scratch. I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at a small Baptist liberal arts college and felt as though the world was ending (on several levels). A few nights earlier, I had been driving with a friend in relationship crisis on a dark, lonely, two-lane stretch of Oklahoma highway before swerving to avoid an animal on the road, which sent my Jeep spinning: we slammed hard into a guardrail before flipping in the air a few times and landing upside down in a ditch.
Somehow, I (literally) crawled out of the back windshield with little to show for the experience but a few small cuts on my shoulder and a lot of books with grass and red dirt stains on them, scattered all over the place for the cops to retrieve after they arrived. When I went back to class a day or two later, no one knew (except my professors) that anything was out of the ordinary. I could not talk about it. I was in my own private type of hell—dazed with the shock that Something Had Happened—which meant that Dr. Tom More made for good company.
A year later, I read Love in the Ruins again right after Ash Wednesday while living in a Chicago soup kitchen as part of a Catholic full-time volunteer program. Caught between religious traditions in another sort of limbo perhaps impossible to describe to those who have not experienced it, I developed a self-imposed penitential program of literature, consuming four Percy novels within weeks. I could not get enough of him.
As my long relationship with depression became more formally pronounced in an emergent adulthood—likely exacerbated by residual anxiety from the wreck—Percy kept me tethered to something of substance. When I could not physically bring myself to go to church—of any kind—he told me it was okay to believe without ceasing even if that was the best that I could do.
There often seem to be two camps of Percy readers: those who still treat him as Gospel Prophet of the Apocalyptic Modern World and those who think he is overrated, too outdated, or otherwise done to death. As a convert driven away from evangelicalism toward Catholicism largely through reading his (and other Catholic) novels, I am particularly interested in the rather strong opinions longtime or cradle Catholics tend to have of him. As image bearers of the One True Church, Catholics need to understand what people coming in from the outside see worth clinging to in Catholicism.
While I generally try to be understanding of people’s differing tastes, when I see Catholics criticizing him, misunderstanding him, or trying to dismiss his value, I am almost tempted to shake them, demanding: don’t you understand what a good thing you have here? (I am also tempted to throw in some profanity for good Percy-character measure.) Yet I suspect that in the case of Walker Percy, it may be a situation where if you have to ask what is so great about him, you might not understand the explanation. If you are uncomfortable with the aspects of his writing that are meant to evoke discomfort—and are leaving it at that—perhaps you are missing the point.
When I first read Love in the Ruins in the wake of my own apocalypse, Tom More felt like the kind of friend I had been looking for throughout my last year among Baptists. The fact that he sometimes thought he belonged back in an asylum began to speak to me more literally when I lived in the kitchen. The center did not hold. Caught between the homeless men who had become pseudo-father figures to me and the generally comfortable life I was preparing to lead after my volunteer year ended, I could not see a clear path for how to function as a human being.
As Tom says, “Dear God, let me out of here, back to the nuthouse where I can stay sane. Things are too naked out here. People look and talk and smile and are nice and the abyss yawns. The niceness is terrifying.” In my not-evangelical-but-not-yet-Catholic years, the mornings when I woke up with a simple “God, help” on my lips—The center is not holding—I remembered when Tom told me, “In times of ordeal one’s prayers become simple.” I clung to that simplicity and hoped that it would be enough. Tom taught me the importance of watching and listening, waiting and working, even when it does not seem to make any difference.
On a certain level, perhaps I can understand how some people might not appreciate Percy’s style. He was writing with such an intense focus on such a particular period in American culture that, if you are not looking hard enough, it can be hard to see the swamp for the moss. At certain times in my relationship with Percy, I have wandered off, unable to see how his obsessions with the banal sorts of evil that weigh us down every day could translate to my life—or perhaps I was simply too close to them.
For it seems to me that most of the charges our current culture might like to weigh against people like him—too comfortable with language about things like race and gender that now can grate against our postmodern sensibilities; too comfortable with making us uncomfortable with how difficult it is to truly face our lower natures—reflect the very people in his novels whom we are meant to see as lacking something vital.
Having spent the better part of a decade letting Percy’s words go down deep into me—from when I was living so much of his world bouncing between Chicago and New Orleans to when I was even more adrift in my hometown before eventually coming home to the Church—I am either too close or just close enough to understand this clearly. For what, if anything, are we supposed ultimately to take away from these novels if not how damned difficult it is to see anything—least likely, ourselves—as it truly is? How easy is it to translate these words from The Last Gentleman to our particular moment:
For until this moment he had lived in a state of possibility, not knowing what sort of a man he was or what he must do, and supposing therefore that he must be all men and do everything. But after this morning’s incident his life took a turn in a particular direction. Thereafter he came to see that he was not destined to do everything but only one or two things. Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.
I like to think it is this reality-centered aspect of Percy’s work that makes him particularly well suited for a time like Lent. It is why I feel this almost magnetic pull toward his books each year as winter gives way to Mardi Gras, reminding me of the physical and spiritual scenes that await. If we are uncomfortable with Percy for moral or aesthetic reasons, Lancelot is an ideal litmus test for getting us in tune with our own failings. In my case, the novel makes me squirm as it forces me to consider in an almost Dostoevskian sense how easy it can be to descend into evil once the word is stripped of its gravity or essence.
When getting from day to day becomes the most difficult obstacle—too familiar to anyone with depression or other chronic (physical or spiritual) ailments—larger mysteries can become nearly impossible to take seriously. Trapped with his own thoughts and a vague recollection of his capacity for evil, Lance just wanted to figure out the endless puzzle of living from one moment to the next. As he said of someone else, “All he had to do was solve the mystery of the universe, which may be difficult but is not as difficult as living an ordinary life.”
He did not know what words “meant” anymore; he just wanted love and a tall glass of something good. Spoken as a true citizen of Louisiana, Lance felt that “one of the biggest discoveries” of his life was this: “It was simply that there is such a thing as a beautiful day to go out into, a road to travel, good food to eat when you’re hungry, wine to drink when you’re thirsty, and most of all, 99 percent of all, no: all of all: a woman to love.”
As Lance recounts the story of his tragic quest, a rather tenuous sort of rebirth takes place that both drove him to the asylum and helped him rediscover the better parts of himself. Critical to Lance’s penitential process is the presence of silence as an old friend-turned-priest simply listens throughout the novel, only speaking in the final pages. For years, I have not been able to get Lance’s line, “Your silence is the only conversation I can listen to,” out of my head. It sustains me throughout Lent and in all the noisy seasons of my life as a reminder of how challenging it can be to say anything of lasting value, especially in these dread latter days of a profusion and diffusion of language; of a nearly impenetrable chatter across the internet and our own internal monologues; of the timeless truth of our self-absorption that makes it purely an act of grace to be able to ever hear anyone else clearly.
Although Lancelot mostly hovers near the end of the liturgical year, in some ways it seems like the best of Percy’s novels to read during Lent. The more Lance rants and raves, the more he unravels the depths of his sin even as he has grown incapable of using such decisive, meaningful terms. As we listen, absorbing the silence on the other end of his account—if we are truly listening—we can find space to see the roots of our own sinfulness, find the most essential words for breaking through the silence to bring us back to ourselves.
In this respect, I have come to see a love for Percy as a sort of shorthand: code between kindred spirits who do not have to say much to get through to each other. When I heard from a mutual acquaintance that my future husband loved Walker Percy, I knew we would have so much to say to each other before we even met; it was no coincidence that we knew we were bonded for life within a few short months.
Despite the long-windedness of some of his characters, Percy has a unique way of cutting through the fat to proclaim certain truths about human nature that are simultaneously peculiar to his time and relevant to all times. His anti-heroic heroes’ frequent inability to abide by such truths is merely a reflection of how impossible it is to live in a state of grace without constantly returning to its source—how frequently our own natures (not to mention our culture) impede our ability to recognize that grace, much less remain open to it.
That brokenness, as it dwells alongside a certain measure of conviction that we are made for something better, makes these books uncomfortable inasmuch as they are supremely relatable—far more so, arguably, than Flannery’s freaks or Waugh’s statuesque pilgrims of a bygone age. In all cases, however, it is that underlying conviction that Catholicism makes reality possible that ultimately redeems our pathetic attempts to attain it. Despite his characters’ crooked paths toward this truth, Percy never wavers.
I have seen this phenomenon in my own wanderings from a deep-rooted Southern Baptist heritage to the unfamiliar land of Catholicism. It is exhausting to read Love in the Ruins or The Moviegoer partly because it is exhausting to be so inundated with the reminders of how frequently so many otherwise well-meaning (or even Christian) people get it wrong—and not just in incidental ways, but in the most fundamental elements of our faith.
A great strength of so much of the best Catholic literature is what might be termed a “proof by contrast”: the reality of the Church is demonstrated primarily by the obvious incompleteness or misunderstandings of opposing points of view. In this sense, I can understand the less aggressive approach to evangelization that I have tended to encounter among many Catholics. It is almost as if their apologetics could be summed up in another familiar Percy quote: “What else is there?”
But for those, perhaps like Tom More or Binx Bolling, who can recognize this truth but not yet fully commit to it, it can make life more painful. It did for me in the in-between years, as I grieved the faith of my family while feeling unable to enter a new religious community. I truly at times could not see a way out. There was a danger of slipping clean. Clean out of space and time. In those years, Percy provided great comfort. It was Binx and Tom, among others, who (quite literally) kept me straight on the bridge across Pontchartrain, driving from New Orleans to Covington and afraid of swerving again. In the midst of another dead summer, I was at a loss as to how to keep doing much of anything. The fabric was wearing thin. The only thing, on that particular day, that made any sense was to take a visit to Percy’s gravesite and then go driving down the levees, a beignet in one hand and a cigarette in the other, determined to keep the wonder alive.