Monday, July 02, 2007

"The Thanatos Syndrome" - Walker Percy

I was looking up some background on the late historian Shelby Foote and found a lote of references to his friendship with another Southern writer, Walker Percy. From there I decided to check out Walker Percy. I found a few articles and interviews with Percy that made me want to give his books a whirl. The theme he explored until his death was the creep of relativism and how it natuarally undermines a larger, societal morality.

"The Thanatos Syndrome" takes that theme to its darkest conclusion and tries to pull it apart and expose the snake coiled around its heart. At what point does abortion lead to proactive euthanasia of the disabled and elderly? When does the belief that mankind is perfectible lead to re-education camps and ultimately the ovens?

Percy's hero Dr. Tom More, a psychiatrist recently released from prison and returned to his old home in Louisiana. Beset by family problems, diminished faith and a general seething rage at the world around him he quickly finds out things seem to be getting horribly strange in his town. People are emotionally flat but sexually aggressive. Some of the same people are suddenly possessed of great calculating ability and utter geographical recall. There are also signs of child molestation at his children's private school.

Soon More realizes that his town is the center of some sort of experiment being conducted to improve mankind. If it all recalls some seventies medical thriller (like Coma, just not as boring) that was exactly Percy's goal. He hoped he could bring the issues that moved him most by deliberately creating a blockbuster style thriller. He almost succeeded.

Parts of the book are too dry and pendantic which is a shame. Percy's ideas are important and worth examinating but a times the book just slips into a little too slow a gear. Is mankind perfectible? As a Christian I of course don't think so and that's the basis of Percy's argument. He makes a strong case for what are seemingly logical outcomes from the dismissal of any sort of greater morality from human interaction. What happens when man takes it on himself to try to reform man? What doors are opened and how dark a place do they lead to?

Maybe a non-fiction work would have been bettered suited to Percy's examination of the questions he wanted raised. Unfortunately he tried to write a thriller and his skill just didn't meet the task he set himself. The action sequences are sloppy and confusing. The dialogue is too long and drawn out to be part of a potboiler and is overwritten for where it's placed.

I haven't read anything else by Percy yet but I suspect that the thriller just wasn't something he'd schooled himself in well enough to actually write a really good one. I've got some of his other books and "The Moviegoer" is always showing up on lists as one of the most important American books of the last century so I sort of feel obligated to give it a try someday.

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