In the study of Walker Percy’s home—a French-style brick cottage among ancient live oaks and Spanish moss on the bank of Louisiana’s Bogue Falaya River—a 1976 portrait of the author hangs over the fireplace. The painting reminds Percy of the hero in his latest novel, Lancelot. “First,” he says, “you see the very dark background, representing Lancelot’s mood at the beginning of the book—depressed, out of sorts, apathetic. Above that is an opening, a window, a way out…”
Lancelot is insane—the book is a monologue he spills out to a psychiatrist-priest in a mental hospital—but otherwise, similarities between creator and character do exist. Both are descendants of Southern gentry, and both have a taste for good bourbon. They share a struggle to conduct their lives in morally significant ways. Happily, the parallels divide again. Lance’s definitive act is to put a torch to his ancestral home and slaughter the occupants within, including his adulterous wife. Percy, who published his first novel, The Moviegoer, at the age of 45 and followed with The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins before Lancelot, is keeping alive the flame of Southern fiction.
He was born in Birmingham, Ala. At age 14, when his father died, he went to live with an uncle, the writer William Alexander Percy, on a cotton plantation in Greenville, Miss. Growing up a Percy meant acquiring a profession. His father had been a lawyer; Walker chose medicine.
But in high school came intimations of a different future for him. His best friend was Shelby Foote (later a distinguished Civil War historian). “Shelby and I went into the business of selling poems for 50¢ apiece,” Percy recalls, smiling. “I sold many more than he did.” They also decided to attend the University of North Carolina together. On the way to Chapel Hill in his dilapidated Buick convertible, Shelby suggested they stop in Oxford, Miss, to see William Faulkner. Percy, suspecting Faulkner would be inhospitable at best, stayed in the car reading a Raymond Chandler novel while Foote went in for a chat that lasted two hours. “Two hours!” says Percy. “At the end, Faulkner did come out and say hello to me, but I had missed my chance.”
Percy went to New York after college, where he took his M.D. at Columbia in 1941 and interned at Bellevue Hospital. “I contracted a minimal amount of TB and that stopped my internship,” he says, “it was a great excuse to quit medicine and take up writing.” During his rest cure in upstate New York, he read voraciously. After two years, he went to New Orleans, where he married Mary Bernice (“Bunt”) Townsend in 1945.
At the end of Lancelot the hero plans to begin life anew with a cured catatonic who had the hospital room next to his. Percy’s own future, now that his two daughters are grown and married, will presumably be less dramatic. He is 61 and would like to start a meeting place for writers near his home to relieve his feeling of professional isolation. He also is making notes for a fifth novel and a second book on semantics. (“Let us suppose that a Martian comes to earth,” Percy says, “and sees all of man’s activities, from space flights to the fine arts to murder and war. We then ask him what most distinguishes man from the other creatures. The Martian would say language. Yet science knows less about this crucial activity than it knows about the back side of the moon.”)
One more parallel between novelist and Lancelot seems in order. Lance’s most cherished early feat was a 110-yard punt return in college. “It is still on the record books,” he says. “The beauty is, it always will be—it can’t be surpassed.” In his earlier work, and now again in Lancelot, Walker Percy has brought off the literary equivalent of the 110-yard punt return.