Archive for March 2011

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

12 March 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Groundhog Day, 2011. The day the media deemed “The Blizzard of 2011” in the hubristic assumption that we won’t get another one to match it for the rest of the year. I prefer to call it Thundersnow! 2011—with obligatory exclamation point and boldface and italics—because it’s not often that we get the bonus drama of thunder and lightning in the midst of a snowstorm.

Thanks to the snow’s accumulation and blowing drifts my office was closed, and I worked from home that day, and the next.

(Could have been worse—I could have been one of the hundreds of idiots innocent people oblivious enough to think, if they thought about it at all, “I take Lake Shore Drive home every night, why should tonight be any different?” even as the weather forecast shouted in seventy-two-point headlines about the impending sixty-mile-an-hour gusts off the lake and the quarter-mile-at-best visibility and the twenty-five-foot waves crashing over the breakwater to send freezing spray across the roadway. Why should anyone have wondered whether driving on an exposed, limited-access boulevard in the face of those conditions was a good idea?)

That sarcastic aside… aside, we spent the next couple of days hunkered down at home, living comfortably on our stockpile of franks and beans and telecommuting via laptop. Sitting at the dining room table, I got down to some much-needed coding, something that I had been unable to focus on at the office with its usual distractions. With noise-cancelling headphones on and iTunes in shuffle mode, I tuned (iTuned?) out the world and maximized my productivity.

In mid-afternoon, iTunes played a song I’ve listened to dozens of times in the twenty-plus years since I first heard it: “Firing Up the Sunset Gun” by Animal Logic.

Before I continue, maybe I should explain that I imagine my music collection forming a dense, elaborate web of connectivity—something like a vastly expanded version of the “Jethro Tull Family Tree” that appears in the liner notes of the band’s 20 Years compilation and depicts ties to Fairport Convention and Yes and numerous other bands. Some of the connections in my web are strictly personnel-related (so-and-so played on this record, and later formed that band), but other connections are more personal (that friend introduced me to both this album and that one). In one way or another, then, pretty much all the music in my personal collection is connected in some way to all the rest.

But amidst it all I’ve always felt like Animal Logic (and, of course, its follow-up) formed a sort of promontory: Stewart Copeland connects it to the Police, and Stanley Clarke to Return to Forever, but this was Deborah Holland’s debut; nothing else sounds anything like this band; Animal Logic II sold poorly and the band broke up to pursue other projects. To my mind, Animal Logic stands alone.

Anyway, sitting there listening to “Firing Up the Sunset Gun” I realized for the umpteenth time that I had no idea what that phrase meant. But for the first time while having that thought, I 1) was sitting at a computer and 2) could easily abide the 30-second distraction it might take to Google it and finally put that nagging-yet-trivial question to rest.

So it turns out Copeland borrowed the phrase (with the word “up” added for improved rhythm, perhaps at the expense of meaning) from the novel Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy:

Barry is a widower, his wife having died of alcoholism before he left Seattle. “Firing the sunset gun” he called her drinking. “Every day she’d be at it as early as one o’clock.” “At what?” “Firing the sunset gun.”

Now, I have to admit I’m not exceptionally familiar with 20th-Century American literature. Henry Miller bored me, or at least underwhelmed my expectations. Ayn Rand told a story that was fun enough, but which only worked if I went along with her world-view. Most of the books I read that might be considered classics of the “20th-Century American literature” aegis—Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird—were required reading in high school English classes, or fulfilled liberal-arts credits in college. Beyond that I pursued other avenues of reading interests. So amidst that desultory and unfocused regimen, I think it’s unlikely that I ever would have become aware of Walker Percy.

Except. One of my all-time favourite books is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. A book that might never have seen the light of day, if not for Toole’s mother and her persistence in bringing the novel to the attention of an instructor at Loyola University in New Orleans: one Walker Percy.

What a strange thing, at least to me. One of my favourite books, one that stands alone and unconnected in any obvious way (The Neon Bible notwithstanding) to anything else in my book collection, or indeed to anything I’ve ever read—is tangentially yet distinctly connected to a song on an album that likewise stands relatively alone within my music collection (and listening history). This connection so surprised me that, without any further knowledge of the book or its author, I immediately went out and bought a copy.

In reading Love in the Ruins, having no expectations or preconceptions about what I was getting into, I felt a bit like Percy did upon reading Confederacy: as he wrote in its introduction,

[O]ne hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. … Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.

It took only the first half-page of Love in the Ruins for me to realize that I had been grabbed, not merely intrigued and interested, but grabbed by the shoulders and thrust headlong into an exciting tale from which there was no escape until I reached its conclusion.

In a pine grove on the southwest cusp of the interstate cloverleaf

5 P.M. / July 4

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?

Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.

Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.

Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Wow. An astonishing hook, and off we go. It’s a rollicking ride, and I enjoyed this novel immensely. I count it as one of the most engaging and enthralling pieces of fiction that I have read in years.

One final connection to note: just like A Confederacy of Dunces, Love in the Ruins has never been made into a motion picture. I wonder why.