Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE THANATOS SYNDROME – Walker Percy

When Walker Percy's sixth and final novel came out in 1987 it ran into some serious critical flak. I recall being surprised that anything by an author whose work had completely won my admiration, and, it had seemed to me, was admired universally, would be derided so severely. "Clumsy plot," said Michiko Kakutani of The Thanatos Syndrome. She was just warming up. The New York Times's notorious hatchet woman went on to pan the plot as “a succession of ill-connected and all too obvious scenes.” The novel, she said, lacked Percy’s earlier “fierceness of language and imagination. It stands, in the end, as one of the weakest efforts of one of our most talented and original authors.”
Michiko Kakutani

Kakutani’s chagrin, and that of other, less prominent critics, had no effect on me. I bought Thanatos, read it, and loved it. I’ve just read it again, and now I know why Percy’s usual literati champions dumped on this one. It has a plot! It has danger and suspense! It’s—gasp--a thriller! It also has one of the most gut-busting, thigh-slapping, laugh-out-loud scenes I have ever read. So funny I can easily imagine self-consciously literary snobs who either missed or ignored the reviews spilling their Chablis after blundering aghast into the X-rated Saturday Night Live-caliber climax that wraps up the central story. True, I didn’t need the anti-climatic, extended epilogue scenes, i.e. what happened to the characters afterward yadda yadda. But I was still laughing as I read them, so no harm done.

Though Thanatos sequels Love in the Ruins, Percy’s third novel, it comes sixteen years and two novels after Ruins. It is uncertain how much time has elapsed between the narratives, but Thanatos picks up with protagonist Tom More just released on parole after spending two years in a federal prison for selling drugs illegally to long-distance truck drivers. His parole is a mere formality, loosely monitored by two former psychiatrist colleagues who allow him to return to his practice. Strange behavior by two of his patients and others, including his wife, soon nudge him to team up with his kissing cousin, Lucy, an epidemiologist, to investigate. Their digging uncovers a secret rogue project to test a powerful psychoactive chemical on unsuspecting civilians. Running the unauthorized government-funded project is one of More’s parole-monitoring colleagues, Bob Comeaux, who threatens to revoke More’s parole and send him back to prison unless he backs off. Comeaux tries to persuade More that the chemical, called heavy sodium, has already proven in the “pilot project” it can greatly reduce crime, anxiety, depression, and other social anomalies by “cooling” the superego and boosting the ego by increasing endorphin production.

No drugs,” says Comeaux, “except our own—we’re talking natural highs. Energies are freed up instead of being inhibited!”
He tells More heavy sodium treatments of the L.S.U. football team has turned the players into supermen. The team, he says, “has not had a point scored against them, and get this, old Tom, has not given up a single first down this season.” Also, he adds, L.S.U. engineering students no longer need calculators, because with the sodium treatments, “they’ve got their own built-in calculators.” 
More responds noncommittally as Comeaux unrolls his exhaustive sales pitch hailing heavy sodium as the cure for a better, brighter, healthier society. When he’s finished, he asks More if he has any questions. More then abruptly changes course with a blunt question about the euthanasia practices of a facility Comeaux runs: “Are you still disposing of infants and old people in your Qualitarian Centers?”
Unfair,” Comeaux squawks, and this might be one of the “clumsy” narrative maneuvers Michiko Kakutani had in mind in her downbeat review. Nor can I disagree. More’s question seems to come out of the blue, with no immediate relevance to the heavy sodium project. Yet it fits a fundamental theme in all of Percy’s work, that the spiritual malaise poisoning society cannot be treated as a societal problem, that ideological solutions, such as Nazism and Communism, have proven too dangerous, and that it’s up to individuals to find their own salvation.
The oracle Percy uses to convey this message in Thanatos is Father Simon Rinaldo Smith, a former parish priest who refuses to come down from a fire tower after losing to Comeaux the hospice he’d been running. Father Smith delivers the shocking conclusion Percy has voiced consistently in his work that “tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer.”

He explains: “If you are a lover of Mankind in the abstract like Walt Whitman, who wished the best for Mankind, you will probably do no harm and might even write good poetry and give pleasure…
If you are a theorist of Mankind like Rousseau or Skinner, who believes he understands man’s brain and in the solitariness of his study or laboratory writes books on the subject, you are also probably harmless and might even contribute to human knowledge…
But if you put the two together, a lover of Mankind and a theorist of Mankind, what you’ve got now is Robespierre or Stalin or Hitler and the Terror, and millions dead for the good of Mankind.”
Odd for one who professed faith in Catholicism as the only reasonable cure for what ails us, Percy conveniently omits the Inquisition from Father Smith’s warning. Also curious is Percy’s mistrust of emotion, including the shedding of tears. If something cannot meet the test of scientific reasoning—except, of course, for the audacious leap of faith to believe in the Catholic god—then, he seems to say, it is too soft to trust, either discounting or overlooking the significance of the Bible’s shortest sentence: “Jesus wept.”
Tom More’s own outlook has changed much in the years between the two novels. In Ruins, a fairly broad social satire, he starts out leaning toward the social engineering side of things, having invented a device that could diagnose spiritual ills by measuring certain areas of the brain. His eye is on winning a Nobel Prize if he can include a treatment feature, as well. Along comes a mysterious character, obviously representing Satan, who does just that, modifying More’s device. But the “treatment” has the same effect as Bob Comeaux’s heavy sodium, reducing people to their baser instincts, resulting, of course, in hellish catastrophe.
By now More has given up on his Nobel quest. He’s content to treat his patients the old-fashioned, sessions-on-the-couch way. Prison, he says, was good for him:
Prison works wonders for vanity in general and for the secret sardonic derisiveness of doctors in particular. All doctors should spend two years in prison. They’d treat their patients better, as fellow flawed humans. In a word, prison restored my humanity if not my faith. I still don’t know what to make of God, don’t give Him, Her, It a second thought, but I make a good deal of people, give them considerable thought. Not because I’m more virtuous, but because I’m more curious. I listen to them carefully, amazed at the trouble they get into and how few quit. People are braver than one might expect.”


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

LOVE IN THE RUINS – Walker Percy

My love affair with Walker Percy has only just begun, despite my having read—at least once--everything I could find that he wrote and that's been written about him. In the early days of my acquaintance with Percy, several decades ago, I even bought a cheap park bench and sprawled on it langorously from time to time under our pecan trees, trying to feel like he looks in one or more book jacket photos and in many Walker Percy magazine features. I probably should not have disclosed this pathetic fact, and surely wouldn't have were it not my intention to impress upon you how deep and lasting an impact Percy has made on my psyche.

I believe I read his first novel, The Moviegoer, first. If so, I have no recollection of whatever or whoever prompted me to read it. I've since read it twice more, each time finding so much more in the writing it was as if I was reading it again for the first time. Some years went by after that actual first reading before I read another of his novels, this time recommended by a friend. It was either The Last Gentleman or Love in the Ruins. This was years ago. Of all the other Percy works besides Moviegoer, Ruins is the only one I've reread. As with my rereads of Moviegoer, while I found Ruins familiar the second time around, I saw much I'd had no inkling of before.

Percy’s novels are layered with meanings that start at the top level with a male narrator and his immediate crisis. Before long, pursuing a resolution to his crisis, he takes us down the elevator through levels of social malaise and its philosophical/Christian interpretations. Percy, who had joined the Catholic Church, considered himself a “wayfaring” Christian, which was a mix of philosophy and faith. I came to understand this more by reading about him than reading his novels, but with the rereads thus far it’s obvious his wayfaring search for a satisfying life based on belief in the New Testament is very much a part of the fabric of both novels. In Ruins, which has an added satiric layer, there’s even an obvious Devil character. Percy balances absurdity with a commonplace surface feel of moving through perilous terrain with signs everywhere pointing to darkness ahead. The opening scene of Ruins kicks things off and sets the tone:
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?
Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.
Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.
Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.
Undoubtedly something is about to happen.
Or is it that something has stopped happening?
The psychiatrist narrator is a “collateral” descendant of his apparently coincidental namesake, Sir (Saint) Thomas More, the 16th century lord high chancellor of England executed by order of Henry VIII for refusing to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church of England. At his execution, More reportedly said, "I die the King's good servant, and God's first." Dr. Tom More, immobilized by Satan incarnate Art Immelman, calls upon his ancestor to banish Immelman as he approaches More’s secretary Ellen to make off her: “’Don’t touch her!’ I cry, but I can’t seem to move. I close my eyes. Sir Thomas More, kinsman, saint, best dearest merriest of Englishmen, pray for us and drive this son of a bitch hence. I open my eyes.


“Art is turning slowly away, wheeling in slow motion, a dazed hurt look through the eyes as if he had been struck across the face.”
More holds Ellen tight as they watch Immelman vanish into swirling smoke.
Immelman’s the cause of the catastrophe More awaits in the beginning of Love in the Ruins. Having appeared mysteriously and affixed himself seemingly to More’s every move, he has subverted More’s invention—a brain-scanning diagnostic tool—by affixing a treatment element he’s using to arouse people’s basest desires. More fears Immelman’s misuse of the tool over the deep salt deposits under the local golf course will release a heavy sodium cloud from which “an unprecedented fallout of noxious particles will settle hereabouts and perhaps in other places as well.
“The effects of the evil particles are psychic rather than physical,” More tells us. “They do not burn the skin and rot the marrow; rather do they inflame and worsen the secret ills of the spirit and rive the very self from itself. If a man is already prone to anger, he’ll go mad with rage. If he lives affrighted, he will quake with terror. If he’s already abstracted from himself, he’ll be sundered from himself and roam the world like Ishmael.”

As to More’s apocalyptic fear, I can tell you that, yes, all hell does break loose at one point in the complicated, politically, religiously, and socially fragmented community where the story is set. Looking back five years later, these days would be referred to as The Trouble. All is not well five years later, though, and we leave off with Dr. More married to one of the “three girls” holed up in the ruined motel, living contentedly and working to enable his diagnostic tool for curing spiritual ills instead of turning people into beasts.
Sort of a happy ending, it would seem, at least for More, but with Percy’s obligatory ominous overtones for the rest of us.


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]




Wednesday, August 2, 2017

COMEDIES OF COURTSHIP – Anthony Hope

Had I read Anthony Hope back in the day—in fact as recently as a year ago—I'm obliged to hope I'd have been a tad more careful putting my heart in harm's way. Much wisdom Hope had in ways of the heart. So wise he'd have smiled knowingly at my hope and cited a line from one of his stories, The Virtuous Hypocrites: "the human heart is very wicked."
The story is part of a collection, Comedies of Courtship, which, had I read them several decades ago, should have given me long pause before placing myself in the position where pronouncing those obligatory words "I do" was the only honorable course. Futile pause, Hope would have counseled, with a nod at another line from Virtuous Hypocrites, only delaying the inevitable. The line, "At first sight they had as little reason for being unhappy as it is possible to have in a world half full of sorrow." Oh, yes. And as to the inevitable crash, yet another line offers a pummeled spirit this modicum of relief: "The only comfort was that shallow natures felt these sorrows less."
Fortunately, Hope knows when to relent, giving us lines like this that bust even the somberest of guts: "Oh, Mr. Ellerton, what shall we do? They're still in love with us!" This from the long awaited reveal scene in Virtuous Hypocrites, a clever minuet of a farce in which the lovers of one couple become a couple themselves quite incidentally, with signals delayed—fortuitously, perhaps, as it it turns out--by lost and misread letters.
The viability of Hope's lovers and wooers, and their beloved and wooed depends largely on their physical appearance, social standing, and wealth. The plain and poor need not apply. In only one story—The Lady of the Pool--did two characters come up short in the physical category. A nubile woman was described vaguely as "heavy", and the filthy rich wooer of the eponymous beautiful woman was ridiculed as froglike—short, squat and cursed with bulging eyes. Otherwise the women, if they're described at all, are simply "beautiful" while the men are tall, broad-shouldered, curly haired and blue-eyed. These were Victorian times, when literature danced delicately around anything that might even have hinted at female physicality beyond blushing faces or sparkling eyes. Nonetheless, with Hope's crafty wit and evident understanding of the human beast, we are permitted rich reading between the lines.

When romantic conniving is involved, women are the slyest, and therefore the most apt to succeed. Trix Queenborough, the object of male desire in The Curate of Poltons, is by far the foxiest of them all. She has, Hope writes, “a bowing acquaintance with her conscience.”
In a conversation with the narrator, a friend but not a suitor, Trix asks what's on his mind:
"I was thinking-," said I, "which I would rather be--the man you will marry, or the man you would like."
"How dare you? It's not true,” she exclaims. “Oh, Mr. Wynne, indeed it's not true!"
But of course Mr. Wynne has hit the nail squarely upon its head.
In A Three-Volume Novel, a seemingly modest but otherwise eminently eligible young man, confronted with the usual feminine wiles, is the one who gets to pick, and, in my opinion, picks the right one.
The eponymous young man in The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard, shares his methodical wisdom with the story's ingenue, advising her to pick one of the two hypothetical bachelors she's eyeing for marriage. Going against her own desire, she takes his advice. In my opinion, there really was no choice.

Dulcissima, a strong, righteous woman, defies The Decree of Duke Deodonato, resisting the duke's order that she marry the hideous Fusbius, the first man to propose to her, as per the decree.
"This day in your Duchy women are slaves, and men their masters by your will," she tells Trump...er, I mean the duke.
"It is the order of nature," said Deodonato.
"It is not my pleasure," said the damsel.
Then Deodonato laid his hand on his silver bell, for he was very angry. "Fusbius waits without," said he.
"I will wed him and kill him," cried Dulcissima.
Happy ending? Well...of course!




[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]