on May 25, 2005
Originally written in the aftermath of the social upheavals of the 1960s, this book may seem dated to some. But if the specific social context has changed, the fragmentation of American society continues unabated, as does the crisis of the human spirit that this book describes and addresses. So, for me, the book remains supremely relevant, supremely perceptive, brilliantly written, and hilariously funny.
Set in the Deep South of an America in a virtual state of civil war and anarchy, "Love In The Ruins" follows the exploits of its flawed hero, Dr. Tom More, a boozing psychiatrist and lapsed Catholic. More has invented the lapsometer - a "stethoscope of the soul" - that enables people to both diagnose and treat their inner demons. But in the wrong hands, the lapsometer can wreak havoc, and much of the book traces More's efforts to keep the lapsomoter out of the hands of a government determined to use the lapsometer for its own nefarious purposes.
Percy brilliantly describes and satirizes the competing elements in this American Apocalypse - the country club conservatives, the "groovy" priests, the religious Right and Left, the technocrats, the sexologists, the racists, the Black revolutionaries, the drop-outs, and the sinister but bungling government bureaucrats who have their own vision of a "Brave New World."
From its masterful opening pages (which, contrary to another reviewer, I think are just about the best writing I've seen in modern American literature) this book will outrage partisans of the Left and Right while giving hope to those who try to occupy the "radical center" where the human spirit is defended against the predations of all the "isms" of the modern world.
on October 5, 2002
Walker Percy died over a decade ago, leaving a small but dedicated readership. A dilettante whose interests ran from medicine and psychiatry (Percy was an M. D.) to semiotics, philosophy, and religion, we remember Percy for his slightly cantankerous (but never malicious) outlook on modernity and the human condition.
"Love in the Ruins," written in '71, imagines a U.S.A. in which prevalent (and sometimes contradictory) trends run to their illogical extremes -- political association becomes fragmented to the point of neo-tribalism, mainline churches become secularized to the point of banality or fixated to the point of intolerance, and psychological treatment grows increasing manipulative. Into this world he drops Dr. Tom More, "bad Catholic" and the inventor of the Ontological Lapsometer. The Lapsometer measures the degree to which a soul has fallen, the degree of estrangement and alienation it has attained. One particular sickness it detects is angelism/bestialism -- the tendency to go from spirit-like abstraction to animal appetite with little moderation. Like all technologies, the Lapsometer becomes a means of social and spiritual manipulation, and Dr. More and his device set in play a story that leads the world to the brink of apocalypse.
By turns desperate and hilarious, this readable novel holds up well today. I also recommend "Lost in the Cosmos," which contains many of the same ideas, but in more of a tragi-comic essay form.
on July 13, 2006
If you like the Catholic Flannery O'Connor's depth analysis of human nature, and can endure its frequent morbidity; if you like Evelyn Waugh's sense of humor and thought The Loved One was amusing; try Walker Percy. Walker Percy is Evelyn Waugh on crack. And the place to start is with Percy's Love in the Ruins. It's not his first novel, or even the first to win him recognition (that would be his Moviegoer). But it's a tour-de-force analysis of the human condition in a Louisiana setting by a womanizing, semi-alcoholic, lapsed Catholic protagonist who, despite (or by means of?) the hyterical laughter of the reader, sheds new light at every turn on the human condition. One imagines the brilliant Percy, with twinkling eye, smiling down upon the event. (The next book to read must be Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, a book unlike any other in the cosmos -- not a novel, but another absolute must-read!
on March 15, 2006
Is it a sci-fi tale about the end of the world, black comedy, novel of inner pilgrimage, or a southern small-town novel like To Kill a Mockingbird? All of these, and none, quite. You can catch snippetts of the plot and setting from other reviewers. But trying to squeeze this weird, topsy-turvy, yet familiar world into a few words is like trying to put the bubble bath back in the bottle. Ideas and images float up in flurries.
Or maybe we should define Love in the Ruins by its characters? Each is as brilliantly drawn as a blade of grass in the first bright rays of morning. Not all are mad, in the conventional sense, though Thomas More, the drunken, philandering, brilliant, pious hero, who somewhat resembles the author, sometimes is. "Dear God, let me out of here, back to the nuthouse where I can stay sane. Things are too naked out here. People look and talk and smile and are nice and the abyss yawns. The niceness is terrifying." Percy also offers three lovely leading ladies, a tribe of black revolutionaries, "love" scientists, "Knotheads," a "scoffing Irish behaviorist, in whom irony is so piled up on irony, jokes so encrusted on jokes, winks and nudges and in-jokes so convoluted" that he has turned orthodox, and a pretty spooky Satan in flannel.
Maybe the best way to introduce this book, aside from saying that it often made me laugh outloud, and often made me think, is to quote a few more lines. If you like the taste, want to sup more on the strangeness of life (the quality by which reality so often surpasses mere novels), you'll probably want to read the book.
(1) "Max the unbeliever, a lapsed Jew, believes in the orderliness of creation, acts on it with energy and charity. I, the believer, having swallowed the whole Thing, God Jews Christ Church, find the world a mad-house and a madhouse home. Max the atheist sees things like Saint Thomas Aquinas, ranged, orderly, connected up."
(2) "Ethel's car is both Japanese and Presbyterian, thrifty, tidy, efficient, chaste."
(3) "The terror comes from piteousness, from good gone wrong and not knowing it, from Southern sweetness and cruelty . . . In Louisianna people still stop and help strangers. Better to live in New York where life is simple, every man's your enemy, and you walk with your eyes straight ahead."
on January 25, 1999
Maybe it's best to start with what this book is not about. It's not about race. Or at least it's not about race to the extent that a Southern writer in the 60's could write about other things. True Walker Percy fans are a highly intellectual, serious crowd; he's one of the few American existentialists who can compare with the Europeans (John Updike?). For that reason, most of the Percy crowd doesn't really love this book. It's too funny. I, however, am not really an existentialist, and did not really enjoy (although I did respect) his more famous books, like the Moviegoer or the Last Gentleman. This book was like reading a legitimately highbrow John Irving novel.
on February 15, 2006
This is my favorite of Walker Percy's novels, and it's on my short list of favorite novels, period. Walker Percy was a genius of social perceptivity, and nowhere are his insights more dazzlingly on display than in "Love In the Ruins".
For having originally been written in 1971, the book is remarkably current. Here you have the "Culture War", as anticipated a generation in advance. The absolute incomprehension, for example, between Tom More and his psychiatric colleague is precious, right down to the psycho-babble jargon - "I am trying to understand." "I know you are."
Percy writes with a wickedly wry wit. Even the name of More's invention - the Ontological Lapsometer - is wryly hilarious, as if a machine could measure the sinfulness of a person's being. He pokes wicked fun at the "therapeutic" community, by way of showing how much more there is to human nature than is dreamt of in Clinical Psychology.
Percy has sharp things to say on a wide range of other topics, including sex, race, wealth, marriage, Christianity, etc., etc.
And of course, his hero is Dr. Tom More, namesake of the 16th-century martyr, who famously said that "the times are never so bad that a good man can't live in them." "Love In the Ruins" is Walker Percy's development of that theme.
on May 12, 2007
Like a good doctor, Percy distracts you with charm or by saying something funny and then sticks you with a shot of the truth while you're off-guard. There are a lot of truths in this zany book that features a lot of Percy's wry humor, perhaps the most important being that the hypersexualization of our society is the product (or perhaps cause) of the deadening of our souls. You'll like the protaganist, Dr. Tom More, enough to want to read the sequel "The Thanatos Syndrome." Finally, if you Google "Ralph Wood Love in the Ruins" you'll find an English professor's insightful notes on this book. They draw out some meaning that I'd missed. I usually don't read books twice but I had seconds on this one.
I always considered Walker Percy our greatest living writer until his death in 1990, and now there is that rather messy problem of figuring where he fits in the cosmic scheme of things. That problem would make him smile no doubt. Philosopher, physician, scientist, and moralist, he brings remarkable depth to this parable of clinical depression set in a time when America has lost its greatness, perhaps from internal decay or perhaps external attack. There are passages here that strike home with too much realism since the horrors of September 11.
The protagonist, Dr. Tom More, sets out to restore balance to the human soul through his remarkable invention, the Ontological Lapsometer. But is this the quest of a madman or a savior?
There is an altogether too eerie prescience in the opening pages, and while one should not expect Nostradamus, consider these lines:
"These are bad times.
"Principalities and powers are everywhere victorious. Wickedness flourishes in high places.
"There is a clearer and more present danger, however. for I have reason to believe that within the next two hours an unprecedented fallout of noxious particles will settle hereabouts and perhaps in other places as well."
Grab this book and fill your glass to the brim with crushed ice and whatever distilled spirit you favor. But if you notice the vines growing across your windows, you might want to get the shears or perhaps refill your glass. Either way, you will be hooked by this book, a real treasure of American literature.
What do you do when the world is coming to an end right before your very eyes, but no one seems to believe you? That is the concept facing Dr. Thomas More, distant relation to the famous/infamous Saint Thomas More, in Walker Percy's novel "Love In The Ruins". The United States is at a time of crisis, but few seem to understand the implications of the events unfolding around them. It is up to Dr. More, who knows how to diagnose the problem, but not necessarily treat it, to try to prevent the chaos from happening.
The story begins on a hot fourth of July, with Doc staking out the abandoned Howard Johnsons motel in town. In three separate rooms he has cocooned his three paramours and he is waiting for an event that he knows is going to happen; an event that could very possibly bring about the end of the world. The novel then shifts back in time to the three previous days, tracing Doc's journey that led him to seek refuge at the motel. The reader learns that he has created a Ontological Lapsometer, a sort of "stethoscope of the human spirit", through which he can diagnose exactly what ails a person's soul, and finally discovers how to treat it. Meanwhile, there is a revolution brewing; the Bantus and love children are ready to take over what the white man has destroyed, if a major catastrophe doesn't befall everyone before that can happen.
"Love In The Ruins" is a truly southern novel, crafted through Percy's intelligence and tempered with the same absurdity that is a trademark of great southern writers such as Percy and Flannery O'Connor. The reader must suspend disbelief as to the events unfolding, even though they are frighteningly realistic, and not so far-fetched in this present day. Percy's hero Doc More is an antihero on par with those of Hemingway; flawed, prone to drink, forever chasing after women who are wrong for him. This novel is his coming-of-age, in a sense, because Doc learns what it is he wants out of life, and how to best achieve that. Subtitled "The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World", "Love In The Ruins" is a deliciously funny and poignant look at a near-apocalyptic America.
on March 24, 2015
Walker Percy wrote four exceptional books during his distinguished career. The two novels, Love in the Ruins and The Second Coming, Lost in the Cosmos, which he referred to ironically as a “self-help manual,” and his collection of essays, The Message in the Bottle. The rest were merely outstanding.
Love in the Ruins looms above them all, a book I have read almost as many times as the Bible and which never fails to disappoint. My graduate advisor recommended the book while I was laboring over my thesis on Joseph Heller. Forty years later the satirical jabs and social commentary, not to mention the philosophical wit continue to delight.
Thomas More (descendant and namesake of the martyr and author of Utopia), physician and lapsed Catholic finds himself in crisis just as New Orleans approaches an apocalypse. Convinced that the only way to ward off the coming crisis is his recent invention, More’s Qualitative Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer, he proceeds to stockpile the device. He also sets aside a bungalow for a just in case it goes to hell anyway.
More is convinced society’s problem is that mankind has become too abstracted, himself included. The fact that More is entangled with three different women suggests the problem may not be abstraction so much as distraction. Percy proceeds to play out the dilemma of philosophical abstraction verses social distraction as More juggles his career at a sex clinic, his private medical practice, the incursion of Black families into the racist suburbs where he lives, the hippie colonies on the edge of New Orleans and the rise of Black radicalism.
Nor can he avoid the conflict between his three women. Ellen Oglethorpe, his hearty Presbyterian nurse from his private practice, organizes his life and keeps his affairs in order. Determined to keep him on the straight and narrow, Ellen has a stern and disapproving demeanor, very Midwestern. She’s the kind of woman More knows he can turn to for succor and comfort.
Moira Shaeffer is More’s assistant from the Love sex clinic, where they conduct clinical studies of couples in the act of love. More loves Moira for her sensual qualities. She’s the perfect woman for trysting on summer afternoons. Finally, there is Lola Rhoades, daughter of a real estate magnate and rancher. Lola is a physical gal, who plays cello professional and rides horses. She wraps More in her arms and legs and clasps him to her bosom.
In spite of More’s best efforts to separate them, they end up staying with him in the same bunker once the catastrophe occurs. Which it does thanks to the efforts of the mysterious Mephisto-like Art Immelman who attaches himself to More and seizes control of the lapsometer.
Even though More warns Immelman the device should never be used around heavy sodium deposits, readers will soon divine the device not only finds its way to the deposits but are freely distributed to everyone, leaving the community, More and his women under a heavy sodium cloud of disaster. Once the cloud ascends, More must find how to disentagle himself from the women who have only now become aware of each other, and focus on the disaster at hand.
What draws me back to the novel year after year? The subtle pastels of his prose, the rich narrative structure but most of all the fact that Percy reaches the peak of his maturity in this novel. He paints the psychological portrait of a man grappling with the recognition of doubt, doubt in his Catholic faith, his abilities as a physician and inventor, and the abilities of society to cope with the tensions that seem to be ripping it apart. But most of all his ability to juggle the women who put so many demands on him and who offer so little in return for the effort he spends on them (which he fails to realize time and again).
Love in the Ruins is a Faustian comedy; a delicous , complex read. The first few pages put the reader on a roller coaster ride that would leave Faulkner jealous and when they climb off their heads will still be spinning. Those pages only serve as an appetizer for the full courses that follow. If you love reading as much as I do, you’ll be back at the head at the head of the line waiting to climb on again.
Phillip T. Stephens is the author of Cigerets, Guns & Beer and Raising Hell.