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Walker Percy: Love in the Ruins

Though The Moviegoer may be his best-known book and is, indeed, a very fine book, I have a sneaking love for this one. Part science-fiction (it is set a few years into the future, though that future is now well since past), part philosophical novel, part story of a man who you might describe as mad or simply as out of sync with his time, it tells the story of Thomas More who is, indeed, descended from that Thomas More. More describes himself as a physician, a not very successful psychiatrist; an alcoholic, a shaky middle-aged man subject to depressions and elations and morning terrors, a bad Catholic; a widower and cuckold. Like all good Percy heroes, he is depressed and miserable and clearly out of place, though this future place does not have cars and is falling apart. It lacks, in More’s view, spirituality. The churches are empty, the Catholic Church has split into three. Euthanasia is being used on the old people and the Bantu guerrillas have burned down the shopping centre. More has three women in his life – Lola, Moira and Ellen – who, of course, represent different values. Unlike other Percy heroes, More has made a great invention, specifically More’s Qualitative Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer, which determines people’s spiritual values – whether they are devils or angels. Unfortunately, he has the fiendish Art Immelmann help him but Immelmann has its own plans to use the device for his own nefarious purposes. Much of the book is how More tries to thwart this plan. Having a famous ancestor helps.

More is a thoroughly enjoyable person. A rationalist but suicidal. A womaniser and an alcoholic. A fallen sinner. A scientist who is totally independent and selfish. But he is a man of character and wit and resources who, somehow, survives in the changed word and Percy’s leading him to this path of not-quite redemption makes for a great novel.

Publishing history

First published 1971 by Farrar, Straus, Giroux