Love in the Ruins
(Picador, 1999) 
Walker Percy was a physician before he became a writer, and I have often thought that the mid-career transition was more apparent than real. When he began to write he remained a diagnostician, but he directed his attention to the human soul rather than the body. In Love in the Ruins he has, rather amusingly, written this part of himself into his protagonist. Dr. Thomas More, a late, lapsed descendent of the great saint, is an amiable, philandering physician with a too-dear affection for bourbon who has invented the Quantitative-Qualitative Ontological Lapsometer, a “stethoscope of the human soul” that allows him to identify and treat the prevailing malaises of the human spirit.
Dr. More lives in an imagined not-too-distant future when the end of the world is nigh. The present political rifts between right and left have intensified to such a degree that the Knotheads (the term is a derogatory adopted in defiance) and the LEFTPAPASANEs (another derogatory adopted in obliging deference to the charms of symmetry [*]) are in a state of near civil war. Government has collapsed, churches are in schism, racial tensions run high, and everywhere the creeping vines encroach on what remains of civilization.
Percy had a gift for cunning black humour, making this much more a farce than a tragedy. Dr. More’s central preoccupation, besides curing the spiritual ills of humanity, is trying to get his favourite mistress into his make-shift love-nest. Meanwhile his lapsometer falls into the wrong hands, and rather than being used to treat the angelism/beastialism and alienation-from-self that trouble his countrymen, it is used to augment them, leading the world — or at least the Southern county of Paradise Estates — to the brink of apocalypse. When Tom is tempted to despair, he finds relief by using the device to tickle his musical-erotic.
The premise of the book is terrific, but the execution does not quite live up to its promise. There is a sustained low-level of subversive humour, and a few wonderfully hilarious episodes (such as Tom’s duel in The Pit, where doctors make impromptu diagnoses of patients before a raucous crowd of students in a kind of medical gladiatorial combat). But I also found that there were many apparently pointless episodes, too many peripheral characters without sufficient characterization, and the farcical tone undermined the story’s drama. If the book had been half its length, it would have been improved. Perhaps, as I found to be the case with his earlier book The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins would be better on second acquaintance. As it is, I found it funny and enjoyable but flawed.
[*] The acronym spells out the policy position of the left: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, The Pill, Atheism, Pot, Anti-pollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia. Some things, it seems, don’t change.