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Volume 17, Issue 2: Ex Libris

The Thanatos Syndrome By Walker Percy

Reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell

Modernism is dead; so say some. It has begotten post-modernism, which, like one of those fascinating and gruesome spectacles often observed in the insect world, is eating its mother. Well, modernism is dead—and so is post-modernism, for that matter—dead in the way you might describe a zombie or Dracula as dead: lifeless, rotting, malevolent, and moving. Obituaries notwithstanding, modernism is still mobile enough to serve as Terri Schiavo's bedside attendant in the Pinellas Park Hospice; post-modernism enough so that Jesse Jackson can show up to support her.

Walker Percy is also dead, having fallen asleep in 1990. Percy's writings constitute a wry, satiric critique of modernism. The Thanatos Syndrome, his 1987 swan song, takes on modernism as specifically expressed in utopian social engineering and the culture of death. The book is a gratifying, rewarding read, not least because of how it treats such grave material with such a lithe sense of humor.
The story concerns how one Dr. Tom More, the narrator and hero, gets to the bottom of some strange medical and sociological happenings in Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Going by zealously maintained pietist standards, Tom has few of the traits that make for a Christian hero. He's a Catholic, and a terrifically, agnostically lapsed one at that. He's also a paroled psychologist, let loose after a two-year stint for selling prescription meds to truckers. He kisses his kissing cousin, despite being married with children. Yes, fortunately for us, in Tom More, Percy abjured the sort of brooding self-immolation that pietists usually think must accompany character flaws. At least More is no navel-gazer.
"For some time now," Thanatos begins, Tom has "noticed that something strange is occuring in our region." His wife, Ellen, is suddenly a bridge prodigy; her mind has grasped the game with computeresque acumen, even as her conversational abilities have reduced to disinterested, monosyllabic grunts. Two of Tom's patients exhibit similar traits, as well as a degradation of sexual inhibition and a diminution of personality. Tom, sensing a connection, figures a few brain scans will help unravel the mystery.
However, the parolee doctor finds that his overseer, Dr. Bob Comeaux, has little interest in this line of inquiry, and would rather that Tom chat things up with Father Smith, a recovering boozer priest, and talk the man into selling the local Catholic hospice. Comeaux, who runs the "Qualitarian" center at Fedville—where they extinguish invalids, young and old, who will never live a "quality" life—wants to buy the hospice, another source of invalids. Father Smith, the story's disheveled Father Zosima figure, is a man apt to perform the Mass in his old khakis and tennis shoes. He has holed himself up, Simon Stylites-style, in a fire tower above the Parish woods in protest against the world's evils. His most particular beef is against the medical community, a profession of erstwhile healers standing complicitly by while the Supreme Court legalizes an array of murderous practices in the name of tenderness. Smith, the wild-eyed prophet, the eccentric spiritual center of the story, sees things quite clearly from his tower. He voices the story's refrain: "Tenderness always leads to the gas chambers."
Tom, quietly enough, spends the duration of the story acquiring that same clarity. With the help of Lucy, the kissing cousin and the local epidemiologist, Tom figures out the Parish-lulling syndrome traces to heavy sodium from the local nuke plant. Someone has been tampering with the Parish water supply quite intentionally.
The culprit, of course, is Dr. Comeaux, and that which motivates him is socially-tender, twentieth century utopianism. Yes, there may be heavy sodium in the water, but the effect on the locals is downright dreamy: every crime statistic in the Parish has plummeted, as have teen suicide and pregnancy, AIDS cases, and homosexuality; meanwhile, the I.Q.'s have increased, the behaviors have improved, and the football team has enjoyed an undefeated three-year hegemony on the field. Were life only statistics, amen and amen.
Life isn't, though, and the utopian vision is necessarily myopic: the local private school, run by Comeaux's accomplice Dr. Van Dorn, is a hive of pedophiliacs, who have dosed the school's water with heavy sodium to produce passive, albeit athletic, booksmart, and sexually willing children. Comeaux, meanwhile, plans on transforming the Father's hospice into another euthanasia clinic. Then there's the problem of the Parish-wide deadness of personality, exemplified the dumbness of the Parish language and the baseness of the Parish sex-drive. Comeaux, in engineering his superb statistics, has deadened man into bestialism; Tom, however, foils the scheme, and life defeats death.
Certainly, Percy didn't take modernism's evils lightly. That which is evil in Thanatos comes across as such; however, he is so resolutely unsentimental that he also refuses to take any of the evil seriously. He'd much rather have us all laugh at it. Were it not for this narrative demeanor—Percy's nimble and confident dismissal of what passes as tenderness in the world—this would be unbearably heavy, mirthless, hand-wringing reading. These three adjectives, incidentally, characterize our Pro-Life movement; The Thanatos Syndrome indicates that we need not expunge laughter, whether that of mockery or that of joy, from our arsenal.

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