Percy and Updike

I’ve got a new best book and best fiction hero. I’m reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and there is something very painfully lovable about his hero Binx Bolling. He’s on ‘the search’ and he says, “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something. Not to be on to something is to be in despair.”

It’s a book to read and then re-read and boy, does it make me wish I could write, and boy do I want to read the rest of his books. Happened last summer that I was clutching The Second Coming while I was up at camp and Miss Ann, who comes from Lexington, said her mother knew Walker Percy and they all went to Mass at the monastery together and his daughter was a teacher at the school.

Percy’s style reminds me of John Updike, but not so dirty. I went to the same high school in Pennsylvania as Updike and you can picture the settings of most of his early work. I was reading a short story of his once in high school and found myself sitting in the very room he was describing. Updike’s Dad used to buy his work pants at my Dad’s store in Reading. Sometimes old Mr. Updike would still come in and be a substitute teacher when I was in junior high. He was a skinny, tall old guy with huge feet and a potato nose. He never planned lessons–just sort of babysat and looked at us like we were zoo animals. Once he said in a voice like W.C.Fields, “Maybe some of you have heard of my son. He lives in New England and writes dirty books.”

Then my parents moved to a place off the Morgantown Road and we learned that along the road was the old Updike farm and Mrs. Updike had moved back there, so one afternoon when I was in college I went down to visit her with a college friend who was visiting. It was an old Pennsylvania farmhouse like something out of an Andrew Wyeth painting. She was wearing a battered old hat and riding a junky old lawnmower and when we pulled up she got off and invited us in for iced mint tea. She told us about John Updike and how he said once in high school, “I’m going to be a writer and write a whole shelf full of books.” There it is she said, and pointed to–sure enough–a whole shelf of books by her son.

I think there was a lot of ‘the search’ in Updike’s books too, but you ended up getting distracted and disgusted by the smut and there was a despair underneath it all. Percy’s like Updike, but clean and frail and bracing and Catholic. Underneath it all there is suffering and confusion maybe, but not despair.

Never despair.

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