Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Struggling with Heterosexuality

I'm now reading my third Walker Percy novel, Love in the Ruins.  I've been meaning to take a look at his work for a long time, since so many people whose opinions I respect have spoken highly of him.  (So do some whose opinions I don't respect, like Rod Dreher.)  Percy was a Roman Catholic convert, and I was curious to see how his religion would inform his fiction.  He also wrote essays on deep questions, which I'll get to in due time as I work chronologically through his books.

Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, originally published in 1971, turns out to be a satirical, apocalyptic science fiction novel, set in 1983 in a rapidly deteriorating America.  Percy's narrator, Dr. Tom More, has invented a device he calls the "lapsometer," which he believes to be a scientific breakthrough that will put him in the pantheon with Isaac Newton.  The lapsometer reads the brain's internal states (what More, a bit prematurely I feel bound to say, equates with "the soul") and can also change them.  Its scientific basis is at best neo-phrenology, though maybe it seemed more plausible in 1971 than it does now; and anyway, this is a satire, so factual accuracy matters less than what the technology does in the story.  I haven't got far enough to say much about that.

The narrative can be dated fairly closely because it refers at one point to the entertainer Perry Como (born 1912) as seventy years old.  I'd have guessed it was later by a decade or more, because Percy didn't seem to leave enough time from the time of writing for the changes he describes to work out.  For example:
The war in Ecuador has been going on for fifteen years and has divided the country further.  Not exactly our best war.  The U.S.A. sided with South Ecuador, which is largely Christian, believing in God and the sacredness of the individual, etcetera etcetera.  The only trouble is that South Ecuador is owned by ninety-eight Catholic families with Swiss bank accounts, is governed by a general, and so is not what you would call an ideal democracy.  North Ecuador, on the other hand, is Maoist-Communist and has so far murdered two hundred thousand civilians, including liberals, who did not welcome Communism with open arms.  Not exactly our best war, and now in its sixteenth year [page 17 of the 1989 Ballantine paperback].
This war would have to have begun in the late 1960s for Percy's chronology to work.  But I won't be picky.  Maybe it's supposed to take place in an alternate / parallel universe? Try another example:
American literature is not having its finest hour.  The Southern gothic novel yielded to the Jewish masturbatory novel, which in turn gave way to the WASP homosexual novel, which has nearly run its course.  The Catholic homosexual romance, long awaited, failed to materialize.  But old favorites endure, like venerable Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, who continue to write the dirty clean books so beloved by the American housewife.  Gore Vidal is the grand old man of American letters [16].
That final non sequitur turned out to be a fairly good prediction.  By "the Jewish masturbatory novel" I presume Percy's narrator means Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, which didn't spawn a "course" that I'm aware of, though it's typical for would-be curmudgeons to claim that a single case constitutes a runaway trend.

So far I'm a bit mystified by Percy's high reputation.  He was a good solid craftsman, but from what I've read of his fiction so far he seems to be a fairly ordinary chronicler of middle-aged heterosexual male malaise, given hopeful gravitas by the trendy "existentialism" that had largely run its course by the time this novel was written.  Love in the Ruins has flashes of wit, but it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut, or Joseph Heller, and of neither of them at their best.  Like theirs, Percy's female characters are standard sexist cartoons, either hot young college-aged women who are inexplicably fascinated by his gloomy, middle-aged protagonists, or The Bitch-Goddess Wife.  In Love in the Ruins Tom More's wife Doris has run off with a "heathen Englishman," more fully described later as "a fake Hindoo English fag son of a bitch" (60).  I'm not particularly bothered by the narrator's homophobia; it's of a piece with his disillusionment with heterosexuality, and who knows what wide-stance desires lurk in the hearts of men?
Those were the days of short skirts, and [Doris] looked like long-thighed Mercury, god of morning.  Her legs were long and deep-fleshed, bound laterally in the thigh by a strip of fascia that flattened the triceps.  Was it her slight maleness, long-leggedness -- perhaps 10 percent tunic-clad Mercury was she -- that set my heart pounding over breakfast? [56].
For a Catholic writer, Percy seems not to have figured out that fornication is also a sin, let alone adultery -- Doris left Tom, but so far there's no mention of a divorce.*  This doesn't keep him from maintaining a harem of three hippie chicks and pursuing a colleague's twenty-six-year-old daughter.  But hell, Percy's protagonists so far have been, like Tom More, "bad" Catholics so maybe it doesn't count any more than the boozing does.  Maybe his essays will go deeper; his fiction so far seems to me quite standard for its time and milieu.

*P.S. It turns out that Doris died after she left Tom; that'll teach her.  But he's still a fornicator.

It also turned out that Tom was suffering from some kind of mental illness, for which he had been institutionalized as a sort of patient-practitioner.  I began to wonder how much of his descriptions of crumbling American society were hallucinations, and I'm still not sure about that.  As I finished Love in the Ruins, I was still mystified by the acclaim Percy has received, and I remain mystified.  He seems to be mainly a competent practitioner of the Male Pan-Life Crisis genre, which of course is so much more universal than the "Jewish masturbatory novel."