Samway, who edited Signposts in a Strange Land, Percy's posthumously published essays, successfully triangulates the major...

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WALKER PERCY: A Life

Samway, who edited Signposts in a Strange Land, Percy's posthumously published essays, successfully triangulates the major forces unifying Percy's life (1916-90): a complex mix of Catholic faith, existential angst, and scientific method. Percy spent his childhood in Greenville, Miss., raised by his uncle, the poet Will Percy, after the suicide of both parents. He began writing early, as a gossip columnist for his high school newspaper, but later turned to medicine, seeking a scientific discipline to bring order to his chaotic life. Stricken with tuberculosis while serving a residency at New York's Bellevue hospital, Percy spent several years recovering in a sanitarium. There he began reading philosophy and identified the central irony in his life: Science, despite unraveling the workings of the human body and the universe, ultimately knows nothing about the mystery of human existence, ""what it is like to be a man living in the world who must die."" To explore that mystery Percy turned to fiction, which he considered a means of applying the scientific method to the study of the self. Though best known for novels of alienation, including his 1962 National Book Award-winning The Moviegoer, Percy felt his essays on semiotics (the study of ""why people talk and animals don't,"" as he joked to longtime friend Shelby Foote) were his most important work. Despite considerable efforts to explain them, Percy's difficult language theories here remain obtuse. Samway, a Jesuit and close friend of Percy's, is more adept at illuminating the writer's midlife conversion to Catholicism, insightfully tracing the influence of this sustaining religious faith on his fiction--a connection Percy felt too few readers made. He believed The Moviegoer was misunderstood as ""a novel of despair, rather than a novel about despair but with hope."" Such crucial distinctions make this an essential critical companion to Percy's work, though the respectful tone mutes Percy's darker side--the malevolent irony and wicked satire so integral to his novels.

Pub Date: May 1, 1997

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 544

Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1997