Percy: Love in the Ruins

May 19, 2011

Love in the Ruins
Walker Percy
(Picador, 1999) [1971]
416 p.

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.

13 Responses to “Percy: Love in the Ruins”

  1. Mac Says:

    I deeply love this book, but I really can’t argue with your criticisms. I always say The Moviegoer is his best from a purely literary standpoint, but this one may be my favorite. It may be more appealing to people from this part of the world–that’s certainly an important aspect of it to me.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I am not surprised that the ‘Southerness’ of the book would be part of the appeal to someone who knows the region. Is it really that crazy down there? Y’all got to ease up on the bourbon.

  3. Janet Says:

    Oh, it’s exactly like that.


  4. This is the only Percy novel I haven’t yet read. –I’m curious to see, though, what you make of The Last Gentleman, whenever you get to it. Having read both it and The Moviegoer twice now, I still like TLG better.

  5. cburrell Says:

    I have both The Last Gentleman and Lancelot in my queue; when I’ll get to them is anybody’s guess.

  6. Janet Says:

    The Last Gentleman is my favorite–at least today. Lancelot was the first I ever read and it really disturbed me. At the time, I hadn’t read many novels that would qualify as literature. That’s not the best way to describe them, but it will have to do for the moment. I need to get it out and read it again.


  7. Mac Says:

    Yes, Craig, I suppose one might conclude that it really is that crazy down here, subtracting of course the apocalyptic stuff. I’m not convinced that it’s much crazier than the rest of the country, though. Just crazy in a different way.

    The Last Gentleman, The Moviegoer, and Love in the Ruins are my favorite Percy novels. Lancelot maybe least. I was not that crazy about The Second Coming, either, though I haven’t read it since it came out. Well, I think that’s true of Lancelot, too. And I think his non-fiction work Lost in the Cosmos ranks with the best of the novels, though some of it seems dated now (Phil Donahue).

  8. Janet Says:

    So, half of his novels are your favorites.


  9. cburrell Says:

    Phil Donahue never goes out of date, surely.

    What do you think of The Thanatos Syndrome? I did not know what to make of it.

  10. Mac Says:

    I figured that at this point a great many people would not know who he is, or what made him such a ready foil for Percy.

    I enjoyed Thanatos (hmm, that sounds funny), but I didn’t think it made its statement all that effectively. I enjoyed many details, such as the old man with the birdhouse. But as with my other non-favorites, I’ve only read it once.

  11. Tracy Stephen Altman Says:

    I came to Percy backwards, it seems; I read _The Message In The Bottle_ first, and his novels only afterwards. _TMITB_ was amazing, though; if forced to choose only one of Percy’s books to be passed down to future generations, I’d easily choose that one. I re-read it every three or four years or so, and it never fails to floor me. Just brilliant.

  12. cburrell Says:

    Well, there’s a strong endorsement! Not only have I not read TMITB, but I don’t even have a copy — one of the few Percy books, and maybe the only one, that I don’t have somewhere. I’ll try to change that. Thanks, Tracy.

  13. Mac Says:

    I’ve never read it, either, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say. It’s always been one of those things I thought I would read Someday When I Have More Time. Well, also, I remember someone saying that Lost in the Cosmos was a more playful and less purely philosophical presentation of the same ideas.

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