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A peculiar angst

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy. Picador, 2000. 272 pages.


Walker Percy not only wrote these lines (see below), but he also lived them. He recognized early on that he was indeed a peculiar bird. He came from an ancient and notable family; both his grandfather and his father were suicides; his mother died three years later in an automobile accident when Percy was 16 years old. Percy’s Uncle Will, a melancholic bachelor, writer and Southern aristocrat who practiced Stoicism as his life’s philosophy, then raised Percy and his brothers. Shelby Foote, who went on to write novels and the three-volume history, The Civil War, was Percy’s best friend then, and remained friends with him for life.

Percy followed a number of twisting paths for the next 15 years. After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 1937, Percy attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University for four more years, earning a degree in medicine. Once he had started his internship at Bellvue, however, Percy fell ill with tuberculosis and remained ill for the next four years.

This time of illness ranks as an enormous turning point in Percy’s life. By now his Uncle Will had died, and Percy was left with enough of an inheritance so that he didn’t have to work to earn a living. He had begun to take a deep interest in religion and faith and eventually converted to Roman Catholicism. He also found himself intrigued by philosophy, particularly the existentialists, by language and linguistics, and by imaginative literature. With time on his hands, he gave himself over to a third phase of higher education and began sending out articles to various journals of learning.

Encouraged by Shelby Foote — their letters, collected in The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, offers a fascinating look at two men who, though so different in many respects, shared common roots and a love of literature — Walker Percy began writing fiction. In 1960, after many revisions, Percy’s The Moviegoer was accepted for publication by Knopf. The novel won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962, and Percy’s writing career blossomed.

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For the rest of his life — he died in 1990 of prostate cancer — Percy explored a combination of themes that became his trademark: the contemporary shifts in Southern culture, existentialism, semiotics, Catholicism, and the post-modern human being. Having once stated, after giving up his career in medicine, that he would study the pathology of the soul rather than of the body, Percy wrote five more novels, several essays, two collections of essays, and Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Lost in the Cosmos brings together many of the themes Percy explored. Written with a high sense of humor — ”Thought Experiment II: Explain why Moses was tongue-tied and stage-struck before his fellow Jews but had no trouble talking to God” — Lost in the Cosmos gives us what Percy intended: a look, through questions and examples, into the soul, a dissection of the human heart that leaves us laughing and thinking hard at the same time. Though parts of the book are already slightly dated — his hilarious spoof of the Phil Donahue Show, in which he perfectly captures the language and gestures of Donahue while at the same time introducing us to the thought of John Calvin, Colonel Pelham, and an alien visitor from space — Percy’s wit, his clarity of language, and his insights awaken our minds and enliven our own thoughts.

Readers who have yet to read Walker Percy might do best to begin with The Moviegoer or with Lost in the Cosmos (the middle third of the book, a 40-page treatise on elementary semiotics, can be hard going and may be skipped). The Second Coming, which is the sequel to Percy’s second novel, The Last Gentleman, may appeal to readers who like their settings close to home; Percy visited Western North Carolina several times, and The Second Coming, a novel which, as one reviewer wrote, depicts a mental patient and a horny widower falling in love, is partially set in and around Highlands.

At least three biographies of Percy exist, each fine in its own way. Patrick Samway, S.J., was a close friend of Percy’s, and his Walker Percy: A Life gives us an excellent and eminently readable portrait of the man and the writer. Jay Tolson’s A Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy is perhaps better written, and focuses somewhat more on Percy’s literary works. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be your Own: An American Pilgrimage offers a different look at the writer from Covington, Louisiana; in addition to Percy, Elie includes in this fine 500-page study of Catholic writers Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Dorothy Day.

Though it is too early to determine how time and circumstance will treat Percy’s fiction, that his books remain in print is an encouraging sign. We continue, apparently, to see his books as mirrors, as reflections of our own questioning and questing selves. His appeal remains broad; he offers much that remains pertinent to our lives, and his analysis of the angst and storms of our time continues to give to us both hope and understanding.

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