By Jennifer Levasseur
“I made straight A’s and flunked ordinary living.” —Walker Percy, The Second Coming
One of the great pleasures in reading biography comes in constructing a life in reverse, looking at the events of a human existence and shaping them into an understandable form, something we can’t do for our own existence until it’s much too late. How many times have we all thought: if only I could go back knowing what I know now? Or even: if only I could reverse time to bask in that pure happy moment instead of worrying about what was to come. How freeing if we could see the arc of our lifespan so we could take action when it’s really necessary and let go of the anxiety associated with those fears that prove equivalent to the monster under the bed. (I’ll admit to leaping onto my mattress as a too-old child to avoid having my ankles grabbed by that terrifying boogieman.)
We love stories about writer rejection—after they’ve become international bestsellers. Who doesn’t know that J. K. Rowling scribbled in cafés while her baby slept or that twelve publishers turned down her stories about the boy wizard before an editor took a chance on her? They seem almost apocryphal now, Paul Auster’s seventeen rejections of City of Glass. But what if he had given himself a baker’s dozen chances, then moved on to car sales? Do you believe twenty negative reviews of your work, fifty? Or do you continue, unmoved by the seeming consensus that this thing that has obsessed you for years holds no interest to anyone but yourself?
These are all varieties of the most basic question, after essential needs are met: how do we construct a life, especially one in which the output is more precarious and strictly unnecessary than, say, medicine or farming?
It doesn’t take much to put me in a Walker Percy state of mind, but I’m trebly moved to reread his novels these days because: 1. the centenary of his birth is approaching next month, 2. I’m lucky and proud to be involved with a book published this week that reconsiders his first novel, The Moviegoer, and its more than fifty years of life, 3. Walker Percy understood the modern malaise better than anyone else I’ve read. More than that, he’s helped generations of readers to feel less alone, to laugh at their own unidentifiable misery and to push on.
Percy became an expert at adapting to the unexpected and making it seem to the world like a brilliant grand plan. Viewed from this safe distance, the shape of his life—from medical student to lauded thinker and novelist—becomes a smooth, inevitable drive. The tuberculosis, likely contracted conducting autopsies, that forced him into sanitariums and long days of reading philosophy and novels glided him away from a career he had accepted into the life he needed. Now, we can dispel those years of physical suffering and mental anguish in a few sentences by revealing that his literary labors granted him the National Book Award for his first novel, a wryly humorous story of a young man in the midst of an existential crisis who uses beautiful women, sports cars and movies as balms. Far from understanding the scope of his life, Binx Bolling realizes that most of us look for meaning—or embark on the search*—only in moments of calamity. Otherwise, we get distracted by the shootout in Stagecoach or a kitten on the screen (as does Binx), which can feel more real, more vital than the mundanity of our own days.
Walker Percy’s trajectory seems inevitable, while he must have found it anything but. His medical training gave him the knowledge to write about Dr. Thomas More in Love in the Ruins, a bawdy yet rueful comedy about the end of the world, and about mental illness in The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming. His choices of subject matter for fiction and essays appear inevitable, though surely they plagued him.
One of his biographers, Jay Tolson, describes a phone call Percy received from Condé Nast magazine. An editor wanted him to write a piece extoling Louisiana food, which he found too rich. He joked that he’d rather celebrate the Waffle House, a chain diner where he often ate. That piece—and many others like it—are pure Percy: insightful, uncomfortably true, funny and “smart-assed” (as he might say).
Lives like Walker Percy’s give me hope. He lived through the malaise and he made great, lasting art. He—never mistaken for a wunderkind—didn’t publish at twenty and he didn’t burn out midlife. He didn’t win another major prize after his first (though he should have), but his books today feel as immediate as they did in 1961 or 1977 or upon his death in 1990.
Percy called himself an “ex-suicide,” having lived his full natural life without succumbing to the legacy of suicide that ran through his family, including those of his father and grandfather. Though these losses shadowed him and his work, he found a way to understand and use the impulse to create a fuller life, as well as novels and works of nonfiction that offer roadmaps. As Kate claims in The Moviegoer: “They all think any minute I’m going to commit suicide. What a joke. The truth of course is the exact opposite: suicide is the only thing that keeps me alive. Whenever everything else fails, all I have to do is consider suicide and in two seconds I’m as cheerful as a nitwit. But if I could not kill myself—ah then, I would. I can do without nembutal or murder mysteries but not without suicide.”
Which is a more confronting way of saying that we can—we must—take responsibility for our lives. We can find meaning by asking every day: What will make me go on? What is worth my time, my breath?
Maybe we need this kind of freedom in order to live the incomplete life, to stumble through the unknown, to trust that our lives have an intrinsic, beautiful shape regardless of how they appear from the murky inside. It helps to have such an irreverent guide as Walker Percy.
* “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. … To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” —The Moviegoer