Sunday, May 28, 2006

But I Am Onto Him.

This is the last time for a long time--I swear!--that I will be poaching from the Writer's Almanac. It is just that I discovered that today is Walker Percy's birthday. Percy, born in in 1916, died in 1990. His The Moviegoer is one of my most favorite, favorite novels. It is about the spiritual crisis of one Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker whose religion is movies and pretty secretaries. The Moviegoer, Percy's first novel, was published in 1961. A quick biography: he went to UNC, got his MD from Columbia, became a pathologist, and contracted tuberculosis in the line of duty. While recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitarium, he read the philosophy and literature he could not get to while in medical school; the novel came out of that. Percy was 45 when it was published. It won the 1962 National Book Award for fiction--beating out Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. Both books talk about what Percy, a devout Catholic, called the malaise, but Percy's book shows, dimly, a way out. There is hope. And: I am on to Richard Ford. I suspect that Ford created his Sportswriter in the image of Binx Bolling--they both love pretty girls with neglible occupations, both invent terms for what their fellow humans believe and suffer from, both speak out of elegant sorrow, but maintain an ironic distance from the cheap plastic world that is making them sorrowful. Here is one of my favorite passages. Bollings has returned to his parents' home for a visit.

Three o'clock and suddenly awake amid the smell of dreams and of the years come back and peopled and blown away again like smoke. A young man am I, twenty nine, but I am as full of dreams as an ancient. At night the years come back and perch around my bed like ghosts.

My mother made up a cot in my corner of the porch. It is a good place, with the swamp all around and the piles stirring with every lap of water.

But, good as it is, my old place is used up (places get used up by rotatory and repetitive use) and when I awake, I awake in the grip of everydayness. Everydayness is the enemy. No search is possible. Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength. Now nothing breaks it--but disaster. Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch.

In a sudden rage and, as if I had been seized by a fit, I roll over and fall in a heap on the floor and lie shivering on the boards, worse off than the miserablest muskrat in the swamp. Nevertheless I vow: I'm a son of a bitch if I'll be defeated by the everydayness.

(The everydayness is everywhere now, having begun in the cities and seeking out the remotest nooks and corners of the countryside, even the swamps.)

For minutes at a stretch I lie rigid as a stick and breathe the black exhalation of the swamp.

Neither my mother's family nor my father's family understand my search.

My mother's family think I have lost my faith and pray for me to recover it. I don't know what they're talking about. Other people, so I have read, are pious as children and later become skeptical (or as they say on This I Believe: "In time I outgrew the creeds and dogmas of organized religion"). Not I. My unbelief was invincible from the beginning. I could never make head or tail of God. The proofs of God's existence may have been true for all I know, but it didn't make the slightest difference. If God himself had appeared to me, it would have changed nothing. In fact, I have only to hear the word God and a curtain comes down in my head.

My father's family think that the world makes sense without God and that anyone but an idiot knows what the good life is and anyone but a scoundrel can lead it.

I don't know what either of them are talking about. Really I can't make head or tail of it. The best I can do is lie rigid as a stick under the cot, locked in a death grip with everydayness, sworn not to move a muscle until I advance another inch in my search. The swamp exhales beneath me and across the bayou a night bittern pumps away like a diesel. At last the iron grip relaxes and I pull my pants off the chair, fish out a notebook and scribble in the dark:


Starting point for search:

It no longer avails to start with creatures and prove God.

Yet it is impossible to rule God out.

The only possible starting point: the strange fact of one's own invincible apathy--that if the proofs were proved and God presented himself, nothing would be changed. Here is the strangest fact of all.

Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference. Is this God's ironic revenge? But I am onto him.