Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1916. His father committed suicide when he was thirteen. His mother died a few years later after driving her car off a bridge: also, Percy was convinced, a suicide. He and his two brothers were then adopted by his father's first cousin once removed, a gentleman poet who introduced his young charge to many Southern writers. One, Shelby Foote, would remain a lifelong friend.
He graduated from Columbia University Medical School in 1941 and contracted tuberculosis during his internship. He spent much of his lengthy convalescence reading Dostoevsky and the existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard — two writers who would deeply shape his own work. He developed an abiding interest in semiotics (a philosophical study of signs and communication), and discovered his vocation as a writer.
Also during that time, he began to recognize the limits of science. Later he would observe, "This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer 'scientific humanism.'"
In 1946 he married Mary Bernice Townsend, a medical technician. Together the couple converted, and were received into the Church in 1947. They adopted their first child, a daughter, and had another daughter who became deaf while young. The family settled in Covington, Louisiana.
Writing, for Percy, was a "serious business in which the novelist is out both to give joy and to draw blood." Over the course of his career, he authored six novels and over a dozen books of nonfiction.
But his first book, the novel The Moviegoer (1961), remains the one for which he is best known. Protagonist Binx Bolling, a New Orleans suburbanite, is the quintessential outsider: alone in a crowd, searching for God in a culture that has been leached of mystery and meaning. Similar to contemporary "binge-watchers," Bolling spends hours alone in darkened cinemas watching films.
In the end, he learns, "There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons."
"The thing that fascinates me," Percy told an interviewer in 1971, "is the fact that men can be well-off, judging by their own criteria, with all their needs satisfied, goals achieved, et cetera, yet as time goes on, life is almost unbearable. Amazing!"
Just shy of his seventy-fourth birthday, Percy died of prostate cancer. Three months before, he had made his final oblation and became a secular oblate at Saint Joseph Benedictine Abbey in Saint Benedict, Louisiana. He is buried in their cemetery.
Even apart from his books, he should be remembered for one line alone.
He was once asked, apropos of the dogma of the Catholic Church, "How is such a belief possible in this day and age?"
Percy replied: "What else is there?"
Heather King. "Walker Percy." excerpt from Magnificat (December 2018).
Reprinted with permission from Magnificat.
Heather King is a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, a Catholic convert, and a full-time writer. She is the author of: Parched, Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Poor Baby, Stripped, Holy Days and Gospel Reflections, and Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website here.Copyright © 2018 Magnificat
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