It's a strange feeling to read a novel after having read a host of books it clearly inspired in some way. There's more than a little of Percy's hero Jack (Binx) Bolling in a character like Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe, more than a little of the nascent awareness of the convergence of reality, technology, and culture that finds itself all grown up in time for DeLillo, and more than a little of Bolling's ill-defined spiritual "quest" in a great many boring books published since 1961 (and, occasionally, someone does something really interesting with these ennui-plagued journeys like Tom McCarthy's Remainder which I wrote about here).
I guess part of my problem is that I tend to hate insipid, self-important characters like Bascombe, and while I had quite a bit more sympathy for Bolling--he at least had a war--there's no getting around the fact that his existential crisis is fairly mundane. He's a young-ish bond trader living in a suburb of New Orleans whose only pleasures are movies, seducing his plump secretaries, and visiting his aunt and clinically depressed cousin. It occurred to me more than once that the cousin's story might have been a far more interesting one (certainly a more dramatic one), but the book gets the two characters together enough that Kate, the cousin, is able to give some life to both the plot and Binx himself. Of course, this is one of those books where the plot exists only as a coat rack to hang the characters' jackets rather than a living thing itself. Binx simply doesn't know what to do with himself. Everyone seems to agree that he'd be good in "research" (one of the few bits of humor in the book), but the concept is as ethereal as his own malaise (although he does imagine that as a physical thing hunting him down).
So he does what he's always done until his life as a functioning-melancholic collides with one who is decidedly non-functioning. Does it make him realize how shallow his own sadness is? Does it alert him to a greater suffering in the world? Honestly, it doesn't seem too, but Binx does reclaim a bit of the basic human sympathy he's lost by the end of the book though Percy seems to make it deliberately unclear if Binx has truly awakened or if he's only shifted his troubles onto the back of another. It will make me seem like I don't like this book when I say: Thank God Percy avoided the temptation to explore this character further in later books. Yes, I'm looking at you, Updike.
Because in the end it's a very thoughtful, sweet book. The language and characters are all very stunning and while its plot may be a pensive, existential one, Percy handles it perfectly. Maybe it's just because I'm watching Mad Men (which is set in the same year) and the main characters share a few qualities, but this book seemed to really nail the strange period after the Korean War but before the Beatles. Everyone is making money and there's a strong push back toward a normal pre-war domesticity, but a few, like Binx and Don Draper, have begun to realize how much, and how permanently, everything has changed. Draper deals with it by being at the forefront of the new world he doesn't like and then feeling guilty while Binx deals with it by doing nothing and then feeling guilty. Updike's loathsome Rabbit Angstrom (also a member of the class of '60-'61) deals with it like a less intelligent and principled Draper, but he too feels the worry and the guilt.
Of these I probably prefer Percy's work the most. Even if not perfect, it's a compelling version of America's despair--a pretty funny contrast to the European version, incidentally--and although it's not actually in the text, I choose to insert my own corrections for the segregated, upper-classness of it all.
And it's not that one needs to, exactly, but I'll be the first to admit that Updike and Ford have ruined mundane soul searching for me. Perhaps I'll go to the park later and think about this and the world's even greater failures while children run past trying to get their kite to take life. Even on the dying autumn grass the kite is beautiful and not a disappointment because there will always be kites and wind and autumn days in the park. I will wish badly to tell them this, but, even though I will have thought differently a moment earlier, it is I who will start to tear up when the kite again falls limply to the earth. The children will only shrug as children do, having yet to learn to see each failure as connected to every other failure in their short lives.
Oh, Jesus, now I'm doing it.