I found Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins this summer in a bargain book basket in Cyprus. Of all places to find a good Southern writer, really! Though I struggled with certain aspects of the book, I wanted to share words that have been going through my head like a song whose melody and lyrics pins the tail on the donkey of an emotion you never could name.
Comes again the longing, the desire that has no name. Is it for Mrs. Prouty, for a drink, for both: for a party, for youth, for the good times, for dear good drinking and fighting comrades, for football-game girls in the fall with faces like flowers? Comes the longing and it has to do with being fifteen and fifty and with the winter sun striking down into a brick-yard and on clapboard walls rounded off with old hard blistered paint and across a doorsill onto linoleum. Desire has a smell: of cold linoleum and gas heat and the sour piebald bark of crepe myrtle. A good-humored thirty-five-year-old lady takes the air in a back lot in a small town.
What is it about this string of words together that pulls some string inside me? The way Percy glues desire and longing and nostalgia to such concrete images is stunning. But I think getting to know Percy’s narrator, Tom More, helps. It’s a cathartic moment, and one that fits in seamlessly in the self-deprecating and extremely open first person narration. What I like about Thomas More is that he’s not an unreliable narrator in the sense that he tells the reader he’s going to tell the truth. What he’s going to tell is his truth.
So maybe the reason that I can’t get this quote out of my head is not only because it struck a chord in me, but because for a moment there, I was Thomas More, a middle-aged scientist on a normal day during the final days of a decaying society. The images worked because they were the specific images of Tom’s nostalgia, and they became mine.
Wow, Walker Percy, wow! That’s the power of a first-person narrator.