The Thanatos Syndrome

Breslin, John B.

THE ADVENTURES OF TOM MORE THE THAMATOS SYNDROME Walker Percy Farrar Straus & Giroux, $17.95, 372 pp. John B. Breslin In a recent interview in the Washington Post, Walker Percy chuckled...

...The only demur I would offer is that Percy risks the charge of pandering to prurient interest by introducing child abuse and pornography into the plot...
...What two worlds...
...We'll take them all of them...
...It is the element of danger, assiduously cultivated in both its public and private forms, that gets Percy's philosophical debate off the ground...
...That the issue here is probably one of semantics adds a further irony, for more than most other contemporary novelists Percy has puzzled over questions of signs and their meanings no less in his half dozen books of fiction than in his two books of essays and reflections...
...Please send them to;us...
...Tom More, the narrator and beleaguered psychiatrist we last met in Love in the Ruins, can only manage monosyllabic responses to his colleague's entirely confident assertions, but by this time the action of the novel has revealed how fatally slippery such linguistic signs can be in the discourse of money, power, and pride...
...When he discovers that his children are being boarded at a school whose owner has special interest in the sexual bonus of Blue Boy, he is propelled from philosophical dismay to drastic action, bringing the novel to its dramatic, and comic climax...
...More is his natural ally, but a wary one for Father Smith is as unpredictable as the crotchety Jeremiah and as talkative as the Ancient Mariner...
...Their reunion at the end, and Lucy's with her renegade husband, constitute the major reward for the medical pair's intrepid efforts to save Feliciana from the dubious benefits of heavy sodium...
...In his presence, More finds himself instinctively checking the exits...
...John B. Breslin In a recent interview in the Washington Post, Walker Percy chuckled over the media's continuing identification of him as a Southern liberal...
...A few lines later Dr...
...Comeaux is trying to enlist More to work on Blue Boy: "I want you to meet my colleagues in Blue Boy...
...For another social slice, take this trialogue involving Hudeen, More's black, eighty-year-old, part-time housekeeper...
...brain who is not an asshole and try to imagine a Texas Humana can-do surgeon who is not an airhead...
...For all its deadly seriousness of theme and purpose, The Thanatos Syndrome is quite a funny book...
...His latest novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, set in the bayous of Louisiana some ten years hence, should certainly blow whatever "liberal" cover he has left...
...More patients, weaned from heavy sodium, return to Freud's world of ordinary unhappiness, and More takes up again the task of making the unspeakable speakable...
...What they find is Blue Boy, a pilot project to turn murderers, rapists, the unemployed, and other social misfits into model burghers and peasants who are also a serendipitous side benefit remarkably uninhibited sexually...
...Between that cri de coear and the doctor's self-evident proposition lies the basic struggle of the novel, with the philosophically minded More caught dangerously in the middle...
...It also focuses the moral outrage that gradually displaces More's perplexity over the transformation of his former psychiatric patients during his sojourn in prison...
...Not necessarily, for even philosophical novels have to get read, and the adventures of Tom More, part-shrink, part-sleuth, are served up with enough irony and reflection to warn off the pure thrill seekers...
...And like him, Father Smith represents a radical rejection of the world, and all its works and pomps...
...At the end of this novel, as much an exercise in analyzing language as in skewering engineers, it is the unlikely team of plain speakers that triumphs...
...Anything wrong with you...
...Chandra, frowning as she lands on Park Place with her little token, a flat iron: "Nothing wrong with me...
...I swear to you you won't be sorry...
...We will all be happy about it...
...They're the best of two worlds...
...As I kept turning the pages, I wondered occasionally if Percy had been spying out Le Carre for narrative techniques, but in fact their two latest novels move in opposite directions: Le Carre becoming more ponderous in A Perfect Spy just as Percy has been revving up the engines for a smoother takeoff and a more sustained flight...
...If the abuse of language can lead eventually to the abuse of children, its purging can be seen to flow from such varied sources as youthful sass, middle-aged irony, and the mumbled conventions of secure old age...
...Shocked murmurings . . . from Hudeen, who overhears this not real shock but conventional, socially obligatory shock: "Lawlaw ainowayta wpepuh," eyes not leaving the TV...
...Father Smith's impassioned plea counters precisely the kind of "beneficent" medical attention Comeaux had been advocating: If you have a patient, young or old, suffering, dying, afflicted, useless, born or unborn, whom you for the best of reasons wish to put out of his misery I beg only one thing of you, dear doctors...
...Such exchanges occur frequently through the novel with More playing ironic straight man to the idea men...
...Cousin Lucy offers some solace and would offer more, but for all his suspicions about Ellen's unfaithfulness, More still loves her...
...Here's the end of a conversation in which Dr...
...Is this pandering to the Luddite in each of us...
...But in his defense, the issue is germane to the social and sexual engineering plans of the novel's villains, and, to our collective shame, not as bizarre as it might appear the UNICEF scandal in Brussels being a recent and particularly vicious example of such exploitation...
...At least insofar as the word liberal connotes an uncritical acceptance of the utilitarian proposition espoused by one character near the end of the book: "We were after the same thing, the greatest good, the highest quality of life, for the greatest number...
...and the narrator: I: "How've you been, Chandra...
...He wondered how long it would take the critics to find him out as a deeply conservative writer...
...540: Commonweal And then there is Father Simon Smith, holed up for most of the novel in a fire tower a modern version of his famous namesake's pillar...
...More's earlier research on the effect of radioactive isotopes on neurons leads him and Lucy Lipscomb, his cousin and fellow doctor, on the trail of heavy sodium...
...You'll like them...
...Comeaux spells out the social engineering corollaries: "In the end there is no reason to allow a single child to suffer needlessly, a single old person to linger in pain, a single retard to soil themselves for fifty years, suffer humiliation, and wreck his family...
...Sent up for illegally dispensing drugs to keep truck drivers alert on their long hauls across decaying interstates, More returns two years later to his parish of Feliciana to find the typical symptoms of anxiety and depression replaced by "a mild, fond vacancy, a species of unfocused animal good spirits," and a mind with the accuracy of a computer and its chilling lack of self-possession...
...Something is definitely up...
...For Percy, semantics is at the very center of his literary and philosophical concerns...
...I'll try...
...Tom, they're good guys...
...Percy's intellectual prejudices, so sharply evident in Lost in the Cosmos, break through here, but it is the laconic rejoinder of Tom More that gives the coup de grace...
...Please send them to us...
...When the room is six feet square and a hundred feet up a tower, such an impulse yields plenty of comic possibilities, and Percy fully exploits them...
...He sees the pattern being repeated in Feliciana with its federally funded Qualitarian Center for ridding society of the unwanted, whether unborn or grown old...
...A sojourn in Germany as a young man in the 1930s has seared into his consciousness the perils of eugenics: noble, minded, tenderhearted scientists who end up doing frightful experiments on children in Hitler's camps...
...her granddaughter Chandra with a degree in newscasting and an eye on the local anchor slot...
...For someone like More who considers rendering the unspeakable speakable as "the best thing we shrinks do," such a program has little appeal...
...Not a new heaven and a new earth, but "Paradise enow" in Feliciana, or anywhere else, for that matter...
...Try to imagine a Harvard and M.I.T...
...Don't kill them...
...Translation: Lord, Lord, that ain't no way to talk to people, that is, white people...
...In between, More wrestles with his own personal demons, including a troubled relationship with his second wife, Ellen, whose bridge game has spectacularly improved thanks to Blue Boy, but whose personality has concomitantly suffered...
...Several pages later we get another character's summation which, for all the admitted dottiness of its speaker, is much closer to where More's (and Percy's) own sympathies lie...
...Percy knows his world intimately, especially the voices of Feliciana's citizens, white or black, arrivistes or gentry, crazy or sane, and all the shades between...

Vol. 114 • September 1987 • No. 16


 
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