K101: Lost in the Cosmos, Lecture 1.03

So, to continue the background sketch. Percy gets married and then he and his wife take instruction and join the one holy Catholic and apostolic church. “Yours is a mind in full intellectual retreat” is his friend Shelby Foote’s response (a statement over which Foote later expresses regret). Walker and Bunt settle down, have a couple of girls, one of whom, Ann, turns out to be deaf (which also plays into Percy’s interest in semiotics and the “Helen Keller phenomenon”), Percy writes a bunch of essays that are published in respected scholarly journals and more popular periodicals such as Commonweal. He also begins to try his hand at fiction, writing a big novel called The Charterhouse which Caroline Gordon reads and writes him a sixteen-page single-spaced response to — comparing it favorably to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood the manuscript of which she had also been privy to at about the same time. The Charterhouse is never published, though, and years later Percy claims that Lewis Lawson’s request to read it has prompted him (Percy) to throw the single extant copy in the fireplace. (Could this really be true or is there perhaps a carbon copy or a handwritten ms. in the attic at Mrs. Percy’s house along with the missing Lenten Journal (Contra Gentiles)? Could it be? (Mrs. P, if you’re reading this, let’s have it please. Pretty please?) More essays appear, later to be collected in The Message in the Bottle, another novel bites the dust (although this one, The Gramercy Winner, has survived in a manuscript that is kept among the Percy Papers at Chapel Hill, and may be read by scholars willing to sit there in the archives and read it. When I was there in 2000, I did try to read it, along with Caroline Gordon’s 16-pager and Flannery O’Connor’s more pithily brilliant single line letter, “I’m glad the South lost the war and that The Moviegoer won the National Book Award” — I’ve got copies of these documents somewhere in my filing cabinet in the basement and it seems that I could have even made a copy of the Gramercy Winner and now I kind of wish I had, but I couldn’t make it through the thing and I wonder if it was really that bad or if I was just rushing it too much; you really can’t skim fiction after all.)

But then comes The Moviegoer. (Yes, yes, Lost in the Cosmos … hold yer horses fer cryin’ out loud, we’ll get there in due time.) A gem of a book without a doubt. A fine wine of a book. Have you noticed the poetry of that book? Good Lord, it is a beautiful thing. And Percy said that writing it did him more good than twenty years (or whatever it was) of psychotherapy. Binx Bolling walks around on his Search — his horizontal search which has replaced his vertical search — chasing women and alluding to Kierkegaardian esthetic categories such as rotation and repetition, going to movies, chatting with folks, noticing that they are “dead, dead, dead,” but then committing himself to Kate (even though flesh, poor flesh quails and fails on the train to Chicago), and then by some dim-dazzling trick of grace finding a way to hand along and be handed along and kick some ass if that can be properly distinguished from edification (because it’s too late in the day to try to be edifying). Magnificent stuff.

Followed by The Last Gentleman, written, unlike The Moviegoer, in the third person. Will Barrett is Percy’s Idiot, a fabulous fellow whom you can’t help but love. This is a big novel, a more sprawlingly traditional narrative than TM, with some great road tripping, romance (holding her charms in my arms) another dying youth (as in The Moviegoer) upon whose death hinges some mystery Will Barrett can’t quite get a handle on, but he has an inkling and he chases after Sutter driving away in his Edsel, hopeful antelope leaps. Yeah, I’ve got to say, this is my favorite.

Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Fabulous, funny, sci-fi, set in the ultra-polarized near future. Dr. Tom More, our hero, a pathetic fellow in some ways. You feel sorry for his brilliant, sad, heartbroken, philandering self. Crazy, crazy, stuff ensues. Our hero has three women situated in an abandoned Howard Johnson’s, with provisions laid in and The Great Books to read. Art Immelman is the devil stirring up trouble. A Sears Best Utopia of sorts is what we have in the epilogue, twining as the ivy twineth.

With that Percy concludes what he says has been “a gloss on Kierkegaard.” His next novel will be something different, he says. And it is. Lancelot, with Percy looking like such a grandfatherly good fellow on the back of the wrapper, his darkest and perhaps sharpest, most powerful piece of work. Come into my cell. Hold on tight. Clean the shit out of the pigeonier, shovel out the shit. A confession of sorts.

The Second Coming. Will Barrett returns 20 years later, falls down in a sand trap, descends into a cave as a way of wrestling God but gets a toothache and falls into a greenhouse where Allison, mental hospital escapee, resides. Splendid, splendid, dreamlike novel. Allison is Percy’s most fully realized female character. The first unalienated novel since Tolstoy, is what Percy says of it.

Finally, we have Percy’s last two books, Lost in the Cosmos (which is the book at hand) and The Thanatos Syndrome. (Well, we’ve skipped over the essay collection The Message in the Bottle, which appeared between Love in the Ruins and Lancelot; we’ll set that aside for now.)

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