His death in 1990 leaves us to ponder what Walker Percy would have said about the cultural corruptions of the 1990s. Percy is a satirist extraordinaire whose work reflects a post-1950s alienation from American society with which many readers and critics can identify. His protagonists are lusty, thirsty, apathetic-yet-questing, self-mythologizing, and irreverent. They carry too much cultural baggage to ever be content to live in America, or even to live. Yet, Percy has many dedicated fans and scholars. Numerous dissertations, books, and articles have been written on such topics as the nature of Percy's Catholicism and the techniques of his satiric-fantastic realism. Readership is not confined to the southeastern states, but is nationwide and international, with translations in a dozen languages.
Although not his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961) was the first to receive publication. It won the prestigious National Book Award for 1962. Its hero finds the movies more real than life, because they at least engage in a search for meaning. Yet it is questionable whether Binx Bolling, The Moviegoer's protagonist, finds the meaning he was looking for when, in the end of the novel, he marries his neurotic, suicidal cousin and promises his aunt that he will apply to medical school. The book was most praised for its tight structure, characters, and symbolism, but some critics found Binx's search pretentious. Samuel Hyman commented that it was the search of a neurotic rather than a spiritual person.
The second book, The Last Gentleman (1966), drew more varied critical response. It was different in form and complexity, using an episodic, picaresque plot in which the antihero Will Barrett follows the family of the girl he loves from New York to the South to New Mexico. The book ends with the death of the girlfriend's brother. Again, the ending leaves questions unanswered: did Will's witnessing of the death help him to carve out an identity from his many experiences, or did he only absorb it and move on, forgetting the pain as he had forgotten much of his past?
Percy also wrote philosophical essays. His main interest is the role of language in communicating or failing to communicate. His essays are "ambitious, dense, and difficult," according to J. Donald Crowley. Their publication in The Message in the Bottle (1975) helped critics understand the ideas and motivations for the novels. Hugh Kenner called Percy's theory of language a "Copernican breakthrough."
The most memorable Percy novel is Lancelot (1977) because it humorously anatomizes the symbolically named antihero and his neurotic obsession with his wife's infidelity. In the throes of his agony upon discovering his wife's affair, he asks himself how a five-inch piece of flesh entering another person can turn the world into chaos. Like all Percy's protagonists, Lancelot's vision is apocalyptic. His wife's affair with a movie producer spells the corruption of the entire gender and of civilization itself. To express his distaste, Lancelot burns his wife and her cohorts to death.
The later novels show a trend towards stereotyping women and blacks, but they also bring Percy's religious and philosophical beliefs to the fore, clarifying the driving ideology of these books. The public remains intrigued and perplexed by this uncategorizable writer, who has called himself a "southern philosophical Catholic existentialist."
Nationality: American. Born: 28 May 1916, in Birmingham, Alabama. Education: University of North Carolina, B.A., 1937; Columbia University, M.D., 1941. Family: Married Mary Bernice Townsend in 1946; children: Ann Boyd, Mary Pratt. Career: Full-time writer, 1943-90. Bellevue Hospital, New York City, intern, 1942. Awards: National Book award for fiction, 1962, for The Moviegoer; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1967; National Catholic Book award, 1971, for Love in the Ruins; Los Angeles Times Book prize, 1980, National Book Critics Circle citation, 1980, American Book Award nomination, 1981, Notable Book citation from American Library Association, 1981, all for The Second Coming; Los Angeles Times Book prize for current interest, 1983, for Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book; St. Louis Literary award, 1986; Ingersoll prize from Ingersoll Foundation, 1988. Member: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (fellow). Died: 10 May 1990, of cancer, in Covington, Louisiana.