Summary: A slightly neurotic psychiatrist faces the end of the world after inventing a device that can read the state of a person’s soul.
Walker Percy is one of those 20th century Catholic novelists that intrigue me. Percy, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Endo and several others were not writing ‘Christian fiction’. They were writing literary fiction that was influenced by their faith, usually quite overtly. They became prophets in a way that I am not sure is quite possible today.
Alan Jacobs’ long essay at Haper’s on the loss of the Christian Public Intellectual is somewhat similar to my thoughts here. It is not that there are not prominent literary figures that are Christians (Marilynne Robinson being the first on everyone’s lips.) But I am not sure that there is a similar prophetic voice, and I am not sure that the culture of the 1950-70s that produced these famous Catholic voices wasn’t a particular culture that was conversant enough about Christian themes, while not necessarily being Christian. But it is also always problematic comparing historical authors to current because the remembered historical authors are always greater than the whole of current authors that have not been winnowed by time.
Love in the Ruins is about Dr Tom More. Written in 1971, it envisions a near future USA that has devolved into a segmented culture with no real government. Small city states of conservatives (Knotheads) or liberals operate without any opposition. Several groups live outside of society, including the hippy communes and the Black radicals that are opposing a more extreme Jim Crow (near slavery) style oppression.
Tom More is a widower. His wife left him to find herself after their daughter died. And then his wife died with her universalist guru. Tom is now a brilliant alcoholic womanizing doctor. He is a sometimes psych resident of the large teaching hospital. But mostly he is living by himself, minded by his nurse, pursuing local girls and trying to figure out his Ontological Lapseometer. The Lapseometer reads the state of the soul and toward the middle of the book he figures out how to turn the reading device into one that can adjust the mental imbalances of the individual, Angelism/Beastialism ratio among other types of imbalances.
There is a lot of humor here, but also sharp cultural criticism. Tom More, because he is a bit mad himself, is able to see culture from the outside. Love in the Ruins is a bit dated, but it was published 45 years ago. It is quite different from the current raft of dystopian books. New cars are easily available for instance. But old, abandoned cars are everywhere. No one will fix anything, so once it breaks down, it is abandoned. Country clubs are still gated realms of white privilege, but armed gangs might burn your house down and kill you and your family.
Percy can write. And he does a great job exploring ideas about the meaning of life, theology, psychology and the problems of modern life. I really like Tom More. But there were parts of the book that really dragged. There was a lot of language. And while satirical, racism is prevalent. There is more desire for sex than actual sex, but this is not a ‘clean’ novel (a Kinsey style sex clinic is one of the areas that wants to use his Lapsometer.)
I mostly listened to the audiobook (Grover Gardner from 1994), but I do want to read this again in print eventually. (Right now the Kindle book is $2.81 and the audiobook is $3.99 with the purchase of the Kindle Edition.)
Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World by Walker Percy Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook