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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  • shadowlands

    "and boy, does it make me wish I could write,"You can already! So write."but you ended up getting distracted and disgusted by the smut and there was a despair underneath it all."Most of the habitually vulgar people I have encountered, are unhappy people. Successful as well sometimes, but unhappy and not searching anymore, but leaning towards apathy. Makes me want to shake them, literally!(they don't allow that in the UK now though).

  • TomBombodil

    Father,Percy's Lost In The Cosmos is a different kind of book, but I recommend it to you and the readers of this blog.

  • Winfield

    I read the corpus of Percy in the early 1990s and it changed my life–in no small part by playing a central role in my conversion to the Church in 1997. I recommend reading his novels chronologically, as some characters recur. A superb source on Percy's life (which is a key to understanding his novels) and work is Jay Tolson's biography, "Pilgrim in the Ruins." The posthumous essays in "Signposts in a Strange Land" repay reading many times over. The U. of Miss. Press has published two volumes of "Conversations with Walker Percy" that provide great insight into his thinking. His lack of despair is particularly remarkable given that he suffered from depression and his father and grandfather were suicides.You'll soon find that Percy has not so much a fan base as a large group of disciples.

  • kkollwitz

    My father recommended The Moviegoer to me whan I was 15 or so. It was a very influential book, and prompts me still to reflect on the Catholic Imagination.

  • Heide

    Walker Percy was one of the first Catholic writers I "collected" on my list of favorite fiction writers (Waugh, O'Connor, Chesterton, etc.). I first discovered him as a college senior (he was a fellow graduate of the Univ. of N.C.). Eventually I realized that most of my favorite writers were Catholic (except for C.S. Lewis, who THINKS like a Catholic, anyway). Still, it took me many years to finally take the hint and enter the Church.I was not that taken with The Moviegoer the first time I read it, but it has grown on me over the years. I've re-read it a couple of times since, but not since I became a Catholic. I love Binx Bolling, and another favorite character is his half brother, Lonnie. I liked him from the first despite (perhaps because of?) his "hyper-Catholicism." Who wouldn't love Lonnie?I must have another go at Percy's books now that I am a Catholic. Thanks, Father, for the reminder.

  • Ana Braga-Henebry

    I will try the Moviegoer again–thanks for the post. I love reading about Walker Percy, what a gentleman.

  • Stephen

    Back in 1982 (when I was in my early 20s), I and a friend had the great good fortune to have lunch with Walker Percy. We were both Percy fanatics (we probably could be characterized as being part of his group of "disciples", as noted by a commenter above), and we had the youthful temerity to track him down when we visited New Orleans – he lived across the Lake in Covington. Despite the fact that we were total strangers, he graciously invited us to lunch. Mr. Percy was as kind, humorous, and wise as you would expect him to be if you are familiar with his writing. There was not a hint of affectation in him. In reading about him since that time, I have learned that he received many such visits from admirers whose lives he had changed. And I have always found that they were treated with the same kindness that we were.He was a wonderful thinker and writer. And, from my brief experience, a wonderful man as well.

  • Rufus McCain

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Rufus McCain

    Interesting post. I commented briefly at Korrektiv, a Percy-inspired blog.

  • Andrew Preslar

    Updike wrote amazing prose, having a highly-developed sense of the significance of all things, a marvelous imagination. But he allowed this acute sense of perception to override his sense of propriety, or, to borrow from a Catholic author, the possibility (in some cases the necessity) of "revelation through veiling." Thus, when Updike thinks he is showing us more about sex, he is really showing us less, because the way he approaches sex belies its actual significance. Updike writes about sex as though this form of initmacy is not inherently exclusive of a third-party perspective. By his writing, he removes the revealing veil, and therefore (paradoxically) obscures the truth. This kind of falsehood constitutes an artistic as well as a moral failure. Gladly, the beauty of his works is not destroyed by this failure, only diminished.