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Love In the Ruins

August 1, 2013

photo-75Although the rental car had the steering wheel on the American (left) side, I drove for the first time ever on the British (left) side of the road while we were in the Bahamas. This was pretty easy, because there’s only one main road that goes up and down the middle of Long Island and the speed limit is 40 outside the tiny communities and 25 when you can tell you’re passing through one. The potholes keep you from picking up speed, as do the goats, cows, and crabs wandering out into the road. It was also easier after Ron pointed out that driving on the left is like driving the whole way in the passing lane of a freeway.

We saw a lot of cinderblock foundations for houses that hadn’t been finished yet or had been abandoned. A number of telephone booths, one with a cylinder of propane hooked up to it. A few tiny grocery stores. A lot of people walking or biking beside the road. One guy fishing off a beach in the noonday sun. A couple of take-out restaurants. We stopped at one and I ordered the special, which turned out to be fried grouper with spicy, fruit-flavored rice and some of the best coleslaw I’ve ever eaten (this is not faint praise because my mother-in-law makes excellent coleslaw–crisp bits of cabbage and not too much dressing). We also stopped at the Long Island Museum, paid the $3 admission charge, admired the enormous conch shell, the photos of Prince Charles at the Independence Day Celebration in 1973, and the junkanoo hats, and then we bought two woven baskets in the gift shop.

After our trip down the island, we returned to the insulated luxury of our resort, where mosquitoes swarmed outside the screens of the dining room as we finished dinner, and then walked briskly, covered in Off, back to the screened-in porch of our bungalow to play games and watch the bats swoop around.

One of the books Eleanor brought with her was Love In the Ruins, by Walker Percy (yes, Walker is named after him) and when she was finished with it, I picked it up. It’s been one of my favorite books since I read it when I was Eleanor’s age, and I found that re-reading it on a Caribbean island with little infrastructure added a certain piquancy to the end-of-the-civilized-world satire.

Published in 1971, Love In the Ruins has aged well, with some of its predictions coming true and others still comically far away. The non-specific terror that the characters experience rings more true to me now than it did at the age of 19, and patient/psychiatrist Dr. Thomas More’s prescription is even funnier (walk home through a dangerous swamp so you’ll experience real terror, and then the rest of your life will seem better).

The by-the-way humor also struck me as funnier this time through, especially Tom’s attitude towards his former wife:
“A description of my wife: the sort of woman who would name our daughter Samantha though there was no one in our families with this name.”
Also his snottiness towards his former wife’s flirtations with spirituality:
“They spoke of Hindoo reverence for life, including cattle, and fell upon my steaks like jackals.”
And then there are other amusing details, like Percy’s anticipation of the steampunk look: “These days it is the fashion to do car interiors in wood and brass like Jules Verne vehicles.”

The humor diminishes when it reaches areas where the satire is still not dated, like on the issue of euthanasia:
“Say the euthanasists not unreasonably: let’s be honest, why should people suffer and cause suffering to other people? It is the quality of life that counts, not longevity, etcetera. Every man is entitled to live his life with freedom and to end it with dignity, etcetera etcetera. It came down to one curious squabble…the button vs the switch. Should a man have the right merely to self-stimulation, pressing the button that delivers bliss precisely until the blissful thumb relaxes and lets go the button? Or does he not also have the right to throw a switch that stays on, inducing a permanent joy—no meals, no sleep, and a happy death in a week or so?”

But then Percy takes the issue and focuses in on it with such a wealth of detail that there’s nothing a reader can do but laugh, ruefully:
“The subject has not only refused to participate in the various recreational, educational, creative, and group activities but has on occasion engaged in antisocial and disruptive behavior. He refused: shuffleboard tournament, senior softball, Golden Years gymkhana, papa putt-putt, donkey baseball, Guys and Gals a go-go, the redfish rodeo, and granddaddy golf. He refused: free trip to Los Angeles to participate in Art Linkletter III’s “the young-olds”….Did on two occasions defecate on Flirtation Walk during the Merry Widow’s promenade…Did on the occasion of the Ohio Day breakfast during the period of well-wishing and when the microphone was passed to him utter gross insults and obscenities to Ohioans, among the mildest of which was the expression, repeated many times: piss on all Ohioans!”

Meeting a woman from Dayton, Ohio during our tour of a desert island in the Bahamas (there were only 8 people visiting the island that day, and it turned out that five of us were from Ohio) certainly reinforced the stereotype that Ohioans are like the Germans of America—always trooping around, big and loud and enthusiastic, often a bit oblivious to the finer points of a situation because they outnumber everyone else present.

The way this novel veers crazily around from the ridiculous to the absurd always restores my joy in reading. Passages like this one re-infuse me with a sense of the sanity of my usual way of focusing mostly on truths gleaned from the fictional:
“I look at Tara, a preposterous fake house on a fake hill: even the hill is fake, dredged up from the swamp by the state of Louisiana for Vince Marsaglia. The very preposterousness of life in Tara with Lola inflames me with love.”

The big question of this novel, in the end, is posed like this: “Suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says yes, very well. How do you live the rest of your life?” Percy’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the ontological has not only shaped my expectations, but continues to guide me down the many, many roads out of Ohio that I intend to keep following, along with thousands of my fellow Ohioans.

Are you aware of any stereotypes about your state or country when you travel outside of it?

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2013 6:42 pm

    Oh God, I am amazingly aware of stereotypes about my — not state, necessarily, but my region, when I’m outside of it. I’m almost always a little prickly and defensive about being from the South, because so many people have said snotty/ignorant things about it. It gets tiring.

    • August 1, 2013 10:11 pm

      I get that. Anyone who has a southern accent and moves to the north experiences the strange prejudice about it making them sound stupid (the opposite of the British accent effect).

  2. Jenny permalink
    August 2, 2013 1:10 am

    You make me want to read this book and all of Walker Percy!

    I travel a lot and am trained to recognize stereotypes, so not a fair question. But interesting to think about. How would the Doctor recognize universal stereotypes?

    • August 2, 2013 8:27 am

      I started my kids reading Walker Percy with The Last Gentleman. Love In the Ruins is not to everyone’s taste, necessarily, although I think it’s his best.

      The Doctor rejects stereotypes, doesn’t he? His thing is more to ask lots of questions about where a person is going and why she wants to get there.

  3. PAJ permalink
    August 2, 2013 6:11 pm

    When my Chicago-native husband first began traveling internationally many years ago, he repeatedly encountered this scenario: “Where are you from in America?” “Chicago.” “Oh, Chicago! Bang! Bang!” Everyone from Chicago was perceived to be Al Capone.

    I tire of the Southern stereotypes I encounter when people first hear me speak. I forget that I still have a good bit of the accent from the place I haven’t lived in more than 30 years.

    • August 2, 2013 10:35 pm

      Oh yeah–Ron and I saw the musical Chicago in London in 1999, and the audience reacted to some of what we thought was exaggerated as if it were the way things really are!

  4. August 4, 2013 9:29 pm

    People are sometimes a little surprised that I am from Alabama, and say, “You’ve lost your accent!” True enough, but I take some umbrage at “You’ve gotten rid of your accent!”

    • August 12, 2013 4:40 pm

      Right, as if a charming, regional accent is something you need to clean off.

  5. August 6, 2013 8:48 am

    As a former Yankee who has chosen to live in the South,….I have no words, except maybe those borrowed from Shakespeare: “A plague on both your houses.” Yankees are mannerless, arrogant oafs; Southerners are ignorant, bigoted oafs. It would be nice (I often think) if they could spend a few minutes enjoying the undoubted charms of both sides of the Union.

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