1971, Books

Love in the Ruins (1971) by Walker Percy

 When I read The Moviegoer in my mid-to-late ’20s, I absolutely loved it. A few years later, I read Lost in the Cosmos and found it entertaining and thought-provoking and generally a really fun way to think about existence. (So fun I leant it to someone who I thought would enjoy it, and now I don’t have my copy.) But reading Love in the Ruins I am wondering, once again, if I have lost my taste for an author I used to really enjoy, or if I have just, once again, found a bad book by picking up something through a Little Free Library.

This appears to be Percy’s attempt to deal with the racial strife occurring in the United States when he wrote this book. It is science fiction in only the softest sense of the word, and not even post-apocalyptic but, like, almost anti-apocalyptic? It’s a satire of the views of the era, of all sides seemingly, combined with what seems like an attempt to assuage his readers that, despite what they feel and fear, people will endure and everything will be fine. That sounds like a noble endeavour, given what I know about the time, but I did not enjoy this book and there are many reasons why.

More is casually sexist in a way that probably nearly all American males of the era and many women would not have recognized as sexist. The good thing about him and this book is that he is shown multiple times that he is at least a little bit wrong about the way he views women, at least in the sense that he is literally saved by women multiple times. But he still manages to other them and to never really see them as his equals – despite how necessary they are for his survival. While reading it, I imagined watching a movie version with my girlfriend, who would get mad at the film for suggesting that not one but multiple women were pursuing this hapless dude.

A much bigger problem is the racism, which I guess I should expect from a white southerner of the era. But More is supposedly more enlightened than most of the white men around him, despite using the name of an African ethnic group to refer to nearly all of them and very much treating them as something altogether different than white people. (I didn’t know about the Black Association for Nationalism Through Unity but it’s possible that Percy is alluding to them here.) The view that black people cannot and should not be in charge is a huge part of this book, and arguably a crucial part, given what happens, but though this appears to be, in part Percy’s way of trying to atone for slavery, it’s still kind of hard to take. The biggest issue I take is when More supposedly corners Uru when he brings up Haiti. Percy seems to think More has got something here and it’s just indicative of how the American education system failed so many people in terms of global history. If anyone thinks the history of Haiti is some kind of indictment of “the black race” (or whatever Americans think that is) and their inability to govern, they need to read a book about Haiti. I suspect Percy and his friends just didn’t know anything about it, and he figured it really was some kind of intellectual coup de grace against all these black people who were demanding more civil and political rights. Learn about the geography of Haiti and the debt imposed on the country post-revolution and then see if you still think that’s true.

Another issue is his catholic morality, which is of course presented as somehow superior to other moralities (including the somehow not Christian morality of the black people, which is, um, weird). I found out Percy was anti-abortion which I found disappointing given what I thought I knew about him but it fits with his attitude towards euthanasia. So many people assume, when supposedly arguing from “principles” against things they seems as immoral, that if we allow medical procedures that result in death to help existing people, that somehow this will be a slippery slope to mass murder. It’s an argument I’ve never understood and I think euthanasia practices since this book was published show More is wrong. But, more importantly, Percy and More were members of the church that literally protects child molesters so, um, maybe shut up about your supposed moral superiority? Did Percy know that at the time? Of course not. But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it. Percy is writing from a place of presumed moral superiority as a Catholic white southerner in late ’60s/early ’70s America.

So much of this book feels like Percy arguing with conservatives, liberals and black people through his character. More is clearly some kind of author surrogate and Percy seems to think he has a better grasp on the way the world is than nearly everyone else. (I guess that’s what all authors believe but some are better at hiding it than others.) As someone who was born ten years after this book was published, it’s really hard to be on his side a lot of the time, despite his good intentions.

And that brings me to the “science fiction” element of the book. I find the lapsometer and the salt dome thing basically incomprehensible a lot of the time. The idea that an EEG could tell you as much as this does feels like it could only be a product of the ’50s and ’60s and the idea that it could be reversed to affect people’s brain, um, chemistry (?) is just preposterous and seems to speak to a lack of knowledge of what it is actually is on Percy’s part. (As an aside, Percy was not wrong to suggest EEG’s work less well on black people but it turns out his reason is just more of his casual racism: it’s not skin pigment, it’s hair style. Coincidentally I just listened to a podcast about this very thing. Funny how that happens.)

And the salt dome thing I just really struggle with and I blame Percy for that. I guess the idea is that it would heat up too much and the smoke would help make everyone crazy. (To Percy’s credit, it’s never entirely clear whether it’s the lapsometer plus the salt dome or just the salt dome that is doing that.) It’s just never fully fleshed out in a way that makes sense to a 21st century reader, at least for me.

And there are other aspects of the “future” of this book that feel false. There’s no inflation (which is funny) and, though there are cell phones (good call!) they seem to just be CB radios. Basically everything technologically and culturally seems to be 1971, though Percy tries very hard to convince us it’s much later. There is no world creation, is what I’m saying. And that to me is the fatal flaw.

But another problem is that I just didn’t laugh very much. I laughed out loud maybe 3 or 4 times. I found a lot of the humour to be way too contextual to the political moment, something I just don’t know that much about despite watching plenty of fictional and documentary films about the era and reading books and articles. It’s one thing to learn about a time it’s another to have lived through it. And, unfortunately, I think living through it is the only way you’re going to find this book really funny.

I do think Percy’s intentions were good. I think what he was trying to do is to say this point in US history that strikes some people as apocalyptic is really not: even if the black people somehow do take over, it won’t be anywhere near as bad as you fear. Or something like that. Additionally, he seems to be saying that people have a really hard time of seeing the reality that is front of them, something I agree with in broad strokes.

And maybe there’s a great book in there, but the lack of a convincing future and convincing plot just damns the book. And the casual racism and sexism of More (who is supposed to be the enlightened one among all these buffoons) and the lack of laughs make it so much harder to try to appreciate what he is trying to do.

In short, I think this book is a mess and it was not remotely enjoyable to get through it. I’m actually surprised I made it given my recent habit of abandoning books I don’t enjoy. I guess I fondly remembered Percy’s other books enough to stick through it.


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