Following Fr. Damian's revelatory look into the life of author Walker Percy, Ellyn von Huben introduces March's Word on Fire Book Club selection, "Love in the Ruins" by offering an account of her first meeting with this "Christ-haunted Christ-graced" author.
It is funny how one can look back at a most mundane moment and realize just how outrageously pivotal it actually was. For example, during my freshman year in college, I had a work-study job in my school’s library. With my affection for books, it seemed as though I had hit the jackpot with the best possible job. Books, lots of books, no mess, none of the sensory unpleasantness of a food service job. Except for the vertigo I experienced (vertigo plus the resident hornet invasions in spring and fall) on the spiral staircase and catwalk around the main rooms of the library, it had to be the best job. I didn’t anticipate the long stretches of boredom when we were overstaffed combined with slow business at the circulation desk. But the librarian had a solution for the surplus woman-power. Reading the shelves. I don’t know if this is an actual job in any other libraries; the Sister who was head librarian was a bit eccentric and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was an exercise of her own invention. So there. In my brief career as a library worker bee (not to be confused with those epic hornets), idle workers were dispatched to various rooms of the library to read the shelves; that is, to look at the LC numbers and make sure the books were in order.
The best of all areas to be assigned was the basement where the fiction stacks were housed. Quiet and away from Sister’s watchful eye it was a playground of temptations. Read a few call numbers, straighten a few books and succumb to the temptation to open those books that looked the least bit interesting. And if something looked particularly good, spend a few minutes perched on stool next to the window (this was a Sacred Heart school, so the basement, in the French tradition, was really the rez-de-chaussée, i.e. the ground floor) There were windows, often open to a cool lake breeze and a freshman with the moral flexibility to read a book when she should have been reading spines was in literary heaven.
It was during one of these moments, committing the sin of theft of wages, that I had one of the most significant and intensely educational experiences of my college career. I saw a book called “Love in the Ruins.” The title was titillating enough to my young mind and it had a catching cover (in the 1970’s style). It couldn’t be any worse than “Love Story”, right? I opened it for a quick look - as I am ashamed to say that I had done with so many books. OK? Sounded promising: “The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World.” I had an intense fascination with Catholicism and a book about a bad Catholic held promise.
“Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?” Could anyone read this opening sentence and not be hooked? Here was a book that would not quickly be placed back on the shelf. This was one to legitimately take out and read. All the way through.
From that first reading, as a callow eighteen year-old Lutheran freshman of the most sophomoric pretensions, I nevertheless knew this wasn’t only a hilarious novel but something of depth. I was blessed with enough humility to remember this work. And to return to it over the years, and to find new depth and insight with every rereading, as the book remained the same but this reader grew. Returning to what had been a dystopian vision of the 1980’s - now in memory a decade of some derision if one watches VH1’s I Love the ‘80s - and finding an uncomfortable amount of present reality amid the absurdity.* The world of protagonist Dr. Thomas More with his lapsometer is just as funny but becoming ever more disquieting as life imitates prophetic art.
Oh, and to remember the author. This author - found by accident while slacking - is one great treasure that has stayed with me from college days. Walker Percy is still an influence in my spiritual life. Not part of any syllabus, not one of the myriad names in progressive Catholic thought with whom I had actual contact (who I won’t name here lest I be uncharitable and the more I say the more uncharitable I am tempted to become) but you can think of some big names from the 1970’s and chances are you’ll be right. Think ‘way out’. Think radical feminist. Those names float through my mind as quaint nostalgia. But Walker Percy remains.
Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916 to a family of such tragedy that their despair and suicide clouded history resembles a Southern Gothic novel. Percy’s father committed suicide when he was a young teen and his mother died in a car accident shrouded in suspicion two years later. He and his two brothers were adopted by their bachelor uncle Will Percy who raised them in the tradition of Southern manliness, scholarship and stoicism. Percy’s first career was as a physician. But being afflicted with tuberculosis while an intern in a New York hospital and given a long, quiet recuperation that provided the time for reading and thought, Percy chose to return to the South and pursue a deeper longing, the life of a writer. And it was as an adult that Percy (and his wife) converted to the Catholic Church, the faith of many of his Percy ancestors. This conversion of heart is of no small consequence; it is the spiritual essence which makes Percy’s writing more than great. The spiritual life of this man is what sets him apart from other authors who are only skilled wordsmiths and amusing story tellers.
It is possible to read Percy’s novels (and essays and articles and other books, for he was a prolific writer, teacher, an astute scholar in semiotics, and observer of life in general) with no mind to the spirituality of the author. That is possible, but if approached in the manner of the ignorant freshman I once was, it means to miss so very much. The Christ-haunted Christ-graced author who possessed such a superb way with words has something precious to tell us. We need only pay attention and be open to the movement of grace.
When you chat with Percy fans there is the inevitable discussion of their favorite of his works. Some would say “The Moviegoer” - winner of the National Book Award in 1962. Others might offer “The Last Gentleman” or even the sublime though disturbing “Lancelot”. These are great books deserving of thoughtful reading. But I will always say, and this is not just sentiment talking, “Love in the Ruins”. Start there. Start with “Love in the Ruins”.
Writing in 1980, extraordinary literary scholar Dr. Ralph Wood goes so far as to say “...the novel seemed a piece of zany hyperbole when it was published in 1971. A decade later it reads like palpable prophecy.” How I could kick myself when thinking of my brief meeting with Dr. Wood at a Flannery O’Connor Conference last October. Rather than lavishing him with blathering thanks for a dismal retreat experience that had been saved by his “Flannery O’Connor and the Christ Haunted South”, I now wish I had used this chance to ask him to reappraise this opinion twenty years on.
Ellyn von Huben is a regular contributor to the Word on Fire blog and the moderator of the Word on Fire Book Club.
Questions for reflection will be posted on Monday, March 5, in the Word on Fire Community Forum. *