49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Ignore The Thanatos Syndrome at your own peril. The last novel of the late Walker Percy, this often harrowing, sometimes humorous (darkly, at least) tale should set off alarms bells as you read through this thriller. The notion of Walker Percy penning a thriller is, of itself, something odd, and a point that apparently raises the ire of many academics and even many dyed-in-the-wool Percy readers.
And this book is different from say, The Moviegoer, in which the inward musings and vexations of the protagonist are fairly insulated from the outside world and its views, opinions, influences. Moreover, Dr. More does not act as the prototypical loner characteristic of some of Percy's other protagonists. Percy's decision to write this novel as more of a fast-paced thriller, the central story occurs over just three days, must have been his attempt to shoot a flare that would draw attention to the dehumanization that started coalescing with more fervor some 15 years ago. (Now civility may be a lost cause: people consider it proper to conduct public arguments with unseen opponents by blathering all manner of nonsense into their cell phones.)
And so the flawed hero, the same disheveled, womanizing, fallen Catholic psychiatrist Thomas More, practically stumbles upon a scheme to control human behavior by adding radioisotopes to the water supply. After all, the perpetuators of the scheme remind him, look what fluoride has done for oral health. What if we can eliminate depression, crime, disease, and enhance learning, cognition, and memory at the same time? Relying on his beloved bourbon to keep him grounded, Dr. More, fresh out of prison for supplying truckers with uppers, finds his wife and children swept up in the scheme.
He plays some hunches, and together with his cousin Lucy, a skilled epidemiologist who employs what was the Internet before any of us ever thought about it, discovers a scheme that is both more far-reaching and nefarious than anything since the heyday of Nazi Germany. Dr. More also allies with Vergil Bon, Jr., whose moral center and keen intellect prove pivotal in discovering the physical means of dosing the population and in confronting the horrors of pedophilia lurking under the surface.
Both Lucy's and Bon's clearcut, strong character fly in the face of those critics who harangue Percy for creating weak or unfocused female or black characters.
Dr. More is the moral and intellectual center of the story, and, typical of many of Percy's leading characters, he struggles to reinvent himself, to get things right, to make the correct decisions. He is not awed by authority, swayed by power, or tempted by riches. Instead, he considers himself to be ''an old-fashioned physician of the soul.''
The parallels between this modern plot to make life better and to terminate anyone whose quality of life doesn't meet the "norm" are clearly drawn by Father Simon Rinaldo Smith, an alcoholic Catholic priest who has retreated to a fire tower where he scans the countryside for smoke and regards himself as a modern version of St. Simeon Stylites. Percy uses this character as a mouthpiece for much of his own philosophy, using a long confession from Father Smith to lay out his thesis about how evil festers and manifests under the guise of perceived goodness.
The first half of the novel carefully unfolds the plot, as Dr. More first suspects things are amiss, then begins connecting the dots, all the while being watched and wooed by the project's architects, who try to recruit Dr. More by challenging him to show what's inherently wrong with a macro-solution to society's woes. The second half of the book moves rapidly, surging ahead like the nail-biting pirogue trip downriver to rescue the children. The action continues as Dr. More shoots down (figuratively) the various arguments presented by Dr. Comeaux or Van Dorn.
Ultimately, Walker Percy has forged here a strikingly unconventional means for debating the philosophical ramifications of meddling with free will, the individual's right to make good or bad choices, to live in happiness or in depression, to succeed or fail on one's own merits. We need to fight for our own happiness and our own rights, he might argue, to enable us to keep at bay the darker tendencies of human nature.
Walker Percy's prose is, as always, fine, rich, precise. Percy rarely embellishes beyond what is needed, yet he can render a dead-on depiction of how people really talk, think, even move. His minor characters are not jolting or decorative, though many are eccentric, and his love of the Louisiana landscape permeates the outdoor settings.
One reading will not suffice to coax the ideas and observations from "The Thanatos Syndrome." Perhaps here, though, are some of the questions we need to ask in a time when genetic customization, "me-first" socialization, and symbolism dominate the cultural landscape; when mercy killing is legal in two European countries (so far); and terrorists and fundamentalists vie for control of our free will and civil liberties.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2003
The Thanatos Syndrome relies upon a flimsy detective story to examine the greatest issues facing Americans (perhaps all of Western culture) as we enter the 21st century. Not that the genre device fails, but that it seems so inconsequential next to the ideas which hang upon it, like the rod that supports the wardrobe of existence, itself.
Although this novel was written in the late 20th century, it feels as if it could be today or tomorrow. We are introduced to themes that are totally familiar, yet somehow bizarre: sex detached from love (and/or procreation), emphasis on results at play/work/and school, social engineering, amorality, mercy-killing, faith in the rightness of science/technology/and progress, abandonment of of our humanity. All this, and yet readable, engaging, absorbing and memorable.
If you are interested in an entertainment that makes you think and ponder the great issues of existence, while keeping you turning the pages, I highly recommend this book.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2010
Walker Percy was southern and Catholic, Kurt Vonnegut was northern and secular, not minor differences, but perhaps they recognized each other as literary relatives. Both were inclined to use comedy, at times the slapstick variety, in order to talk about some of the unfunniest subjects in the world, like war, euthanasia, abortion, and other justifications we cook up for killing one another.
Percy's hero in this book, as in his earlier novel, Love in the Ruins, is Dr. Thomas More, resident of a rural Louisiana parish (what we yankees call a county) and a direct descendent of St. Thomas More. Like his ancestor, he has been a prisoner, but for selling amphetamines to truckers rather than for acts of fideility to conscience. Also like his ancestor, he is a Catholic, except in the current generation, things being what they are, More's connection to his Church is threadbare. Still there is a bit of religious glue holding body and soul together. Tom More isn't able to make himself comfortable with the contemporary mercies that pave the way to the gas chamber and the abortorium.
In The Thanatos Syndrome we encounter a few psychiatrists who makes heaps of money running the Qualitarian Center, where the old and/or feeble-minded are provided with Death with Dignity. In their spare time, using a federal grant, the clever doctors are in the midst of a local experiment that they regard as the best idea since fluoride in toothpaste. While sticking to bottled water for themselves, they are lacing the water supply with a substance (borrowed from a nearby nuclear generator) that knocks out the part of the brain that makes people dangerous and miserable. Violent crime has evaporated in the area effected. Black prisoners are singing the old spirituals as they cheerfully pick cotton on the local prison farm. Sexual-transmitted diseases have practically disappeared. No more AIDS, no more herpes.
At first glance it looks like the doctors have found a chemical method to mass produce the lifestyle of the saints. People drinking the local water aren't inclined to do the sorts of things that make headlines in The National Enquirer. (But not quite. It turns out that adults who drink too much of the local water find that the ideal sex-partners are children.)
The part of the brain made dormant also happens to be where the soul and conscience hang out. It is the patch that has most to do with creativity, verbal skills, and what makes us who we are. Those drinking the local water are better at telling you exactly where St. Louis is than in making a sentence that includes a subject, verb and object. They are a whiz at bridge but incapable of theology.
Percy links what is now happening in manipulative medical technology in the US and what was going on with psychiatry in Germany from the twenties until the collapse of the Nazis, at the same time pointing out that you don't have to like Hitler (the German shrinks didn't) to end up doing some of the worst things that happened in Hitler's Germany.
Percy integrates a steady stream of observation about the American Way of Life and what is like living in "the Age of Not Knowing What to Do." For example here is Tom More reflecting about a patient who, before the local water ironed out all depression and anxiety, felt like a failure:
"What is failure? Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time. Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print. But in the movies they don't show the failures. What you see are the takes that work. So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded-off way. It looks as if real failure is unspeakable. TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories. Because that is not the way life is. Life is fits and starts, mostly fits."
Percy continues his assessment of contemporary American Catholicism that began in Love in the Ruins. Fr. Kev Kevin, the former director of the Love Clinic, has abandoned the controls of the Orgasmatron computer and given up the priesthood as well. He is "into Hinduism," has married a former nun who is taking up witchcraft, and together they run a marriage encounter center in a rehabilitated stable.
In The Thanatos Syndrome we meet a very different kind of priest: Fr. Simon Smith, a modern stylite, fasting atop a fire-watch tower as the book begins. People consider him crazy as a loon. Maybe he is, but he's a saint as well. His "confession" is the keystone of the novel. Here we discover that his vocation is an on-going penitential work having chiefly to do with the devastation his father helped bring about in Europe -- he is the son of one of the liberal German physicians (anti-Nazis one and all) whose work to "relieve suffering" via euthanasia helped prepare the way for the Holocaust.
Father Smith's big discovery in life was that "the only people I got along with were bums, outcasts, pariahs, family skeletons, and the dying." It isn't a boast. "I don't know about Mother Theresa, but I [did what I did] because I liked it, not for love of the wretched ... dying people were the only people I could stand. They were my kind ... Dying people, suffering people, don't lie."
Percy's final novel is a wonderful last word.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2005
The Thanatos Syndrome was Percy's last novel before his death, and in many ways it is his final triumph.
It is one of Percy's great gifts to use absurdity and humour to introduce the gravest of concerns. Not surprisingly, therefore, Percy uses the comic genre of a detective novel. Thanatos breezes through a series of interviews with aberrant and suspicious characters, sleuthing, romance and false leads, en route to the creation of a casefile of premeditated wrongdoing. But like Dostoevsky (who also made use of the detective novel), Percy's intent is not primarily on spinning a good whodunnit, but on motivation and human character. The picture is shocking and even funny (particularly in the denouement), but it is certainly not pretty.
Readers looking for a joyous romp through the bayous or else the pacified work of a Catholic apologist need not bother with this book. Not only is this novel disturbingly explicit at times, it contains a Grand Inquisitorial holocaust memoir. While connections to late 20th century America and the Weimar elite run the risk of exaggeration, Percy's AWOL anchorite priest, Father Smith, certainly gives much to think about. Does tenderness really lead to the gas chambers?
Thanatos is actually a sequel to another dystopian drama, Love in the Ruins (1971). Connections to the earlier book, however, are broad and thematic. The protagonist is still Dr. Tom More, the randy bad catholic, fence-sitting introvert, and disturbed, marginalized expert on cortical functions and heavy sodium. Little mention is made, however, of More's lapsometer, of futuristic technology, the Ecuadorian conflict, or the racial and partisan conflict characteristic of Percy's earlier book. It is less a novel about 'the end of the world' than it is about the decay of civilization.
A disarming, smart book.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2001
Walker Percy, M.D. struck his final blow at utopian social engineers with "The Thanatos Syndrome". He skillfully draws the connection between the population control groups of today and the cultured Germans of the Weimar Republic and their joint enthusiasm for eugenics and abortion solutions. With that theme playing itself out in the background, he pursues the exciting plot that asks the question: If you could put something in the water that would destroy freewill, but provide perfect order to society, should you? Launch yourself into this rare combination of thriller and deep cultural examination for a great read!
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2004
This is my first book by Walker Percy, but it won't be my last.*
The asterisk? I give this story only a luke-warm review. Yes, the plot does have a thought-provoking dystopian element to it, and it does include the kind of important and bold examination of good and evil that I have heard Mr. Percy is known for. But it can also be blunt at times, and also I wonder if some of the sex-related discourse and the protagonist's navel gazing were necessary parts of the story.
What saved the day here was the talented Mr. Percy's crisp and compelling writing style. By the time I was finished with The Thanatos Syndrome, I had the impression that Mr. Percy could make a computer instruction manual seem gripping. His turns of phrase, characterizations, efficient dialogue, and ability to move the narrative forward with apparent effortlessness are rare qualities indeed.
What makes the writing work so well is its subtlety -- it all seems to mesh so naturally. And that is something that in some ways works against a story line that is at least on some level obvious and predictable.
But that doesn't dissuade me from wanting to seek out another of Mr. Percy's books. I think that his enjoyable writing style combined with a more balanced story could yield stunning results. I can hardly wait.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2010
Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome has been mislabeled a thriller. No. It is Percy's same sly, wry, and dry humor but with a twist: he has adopted another garb on the same voice.
And that voice is: once we abandon our search for trying to know what it is to be human we become merely animals, and therefore no longer greater than angels, but discardable. When we say we are only manipulated blobs of animate matter our world ends in worshiping death and our device is the gas chambers.
The story arc follows an anti-hero, Percy's alter ego "psyche-iatrist" a laid back doctor in a backwater populated by all types and all income levels. Returning from a period of disgrace in a low security federal penitentiary for selling speed to truck drivers the shade of Dr. Freud peaks over his shoulder as he examines changed patient after changed patient. On the surface his patients appear more content, but underneath they have been chemically lobotomized. They happily fornicate at random, eat, defecate, and display no inhibitions, but do retain astonishing higher brain functions. The community has become a chimp colony, and everyone knows whom are the alpha males and females.
Percy uses the familiar plot of a conspiracy to make his philosophical points on what it is to be human, and what you are actually doing when you decide to drop the mantle of Elijah, and instead proclaim yourself God. His prose is circular and meditative, but clear and astonishing, as upon completion of each chapter a small light of clarity takes on full power and illuminates this darkness.
A profound and stunning last novel, that is prophetic as we today suffer under the very Thanatos Syndrome of which Percy warned. We swim in a culture of death.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2001
Have you read anything recently that just kinda buzzed around in your head for a while afterwards as you tried to get a grip on it. I'm still trying to sort through the parallels I'm seeing in this book to other great pieces of literature. Perhaps I'll start with G.K. Chesterton who said (I'm paraphrasing here) the world is being destroyed, not by our vices, but by our virtues run amok.
The moral heroes in _The Thanatos Syndrome_ are fairly suspect morally. The main character was just released from prison for traficking in narcotics. The villains are brilliant men who want to reduce crime, unwanted pregnancies, medical expenses, violence, and to improve learning, memory and good citizenship. All this by adding a touch of chemicals to the water supply, just like flouride.
Other parallels which come to mind are Dostoevsky's novels, or perhaps Robert Penn Warren's _All the King's Men_, where an interlude from a completely different time sheds light on the current action. In this case the interlude is told by an old and senile priest who remembers his youth in Germany in the 30's. He recalls how he felt that his friends were better people than he, and only by accident did he return to the US.
The pace of this book does occasionally seem a bit slow, but it was well worth the time put in.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 1998
Walker Percy successfully weaves a thought-provoking ethical dilemma into a complex, action-filled fictional narrative. The Thanatos Syndrome engenders a turmoil of pleasurable, suspenseful sensations and disquieting sentiments in its readers. The novel's strengths include a strongly, developed main character who is the first person narrator of the story, a logical sequence of events, and a satisfying conclusion; the novel's only weakness is its use of graphic, wholly unnecessary details of child sexual abuse (not suitable for young readers); the extent to which the abuse is described is excessive and goes beyond the needed explanation to clarify events of the plot. The Thanatos Syndrome addresses many relevant social issues - including crime, teen pregnancy, homosexuality and AIDS - in an honest and truthful manner while providing a particularly insightful look at human nature. Percy effectively portrays both sides of America's current social climate: the need for a quick-fix for its group problems and the rights of the individual within that society. I don't normally read this type of book, but I was particularly surprised by its honesty and haunted by its possibility.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 1996
I can give no higher recommendation for this book than to say
that I named my son Walker, after reading this and Percy's other, earlier works. Mr. Percy has written a
highly moralistic satire of what Pope John Paul II has
called our "culture of death" in a mystery's clothing.
The plotline is taut and intriguing as we follow Dr. Tom
More (the same alcoholic, bad Catholic, freudian psychiatrist who was the hero of Percy's "Love in the Ruins")as
he tries to determine what exactly has made the people in
Feliciana Parish,LA lose their neuroses and take on other
subtly primate-like behaviours.
Percy shows us the dangers and roots of social engineering
as shown by the Weimar Republic and shows how slippery the
slope on which abortion and euthanasia lie.
However, all is accomplished with grand wit and flawless
writing, as Percy yet again accomplishes what most believe
to be an impossibility...he constructs an entertaining AND
enlightening novel that teaches without preaching and ex-
pands us while giving us much to laugh about.