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The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

When Walker Percy was diagnosed with tuberculosis at twenty-six, what might have seemed a serious setback for a recent medical school graduate turned into a life-altering career change. During the years Percy spent recovering at Trudeau Sanatorium in upstate New York, reading literature and religion, falling under the spell of European existential philosophers such as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Søren Kierkegaard, he turned his focus from healing bodies to healing souls. Returning to his native South, he married Mary Bernice Townsend, converted to Catholicism, and settled into the life of a writer/philosopher. Like the Europeans he admired, he expressed his fascination with philosophy in fictional form, publishing six novels before his death at home in Covington, Louisiana, in 1990.

With the publication of his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961), which won the National Book Award, Percy was immediately recognized as a leading Southern writer. His handling of major existential themes such as alienation, loss of faith, and search for meaning, expressed through the characters of Binx Bolling and Kate Cutrer, left no doubt that he was a writer of great philosophical depth.

Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1916. Undoubtedly his thematic concerns reflected his own childhood tragedies of losing his grandfather and father to suicide and, soon after, his mother to a car accident. Walker and his two brothers were adopted by a cousin, William Alexander Percy (“Uncle Will”), a lawyer, writer, and Southern traditionalist living in Greenville, Mississippi, whose values shaped the Moviegoer character Aunt Emily.

But it’s Binx, a Korean War veteran and New Orleans stockbroker, who most clearly embodies Percy’s own brand of Christian existentialism. Though Binx’s daily activities of making money in the stock market, sexually pursuing a series of secretaries, and moviegoing might seem shallow and avoidant, his inner life is anything but. Internally, he observes and interprets life according to “the search,” a complex philosophical stance of how to live in a world where the traditional values of religious faith and Southern stoicism are crumbling. His female counterpart, Kate, is also adrift after the death of her mother when Kate was still a young girl. Filled with anxiety, at times suicidal, Kate seeks refuge in familial rebellion, pills, and the one person who understands her — Binx. For Kate, Binx’s search is an antic preoccupation; for Binx it is an existential quest of the highest order.

As readers, we might not see the overlapping consciousness that develops between these two isolated southerners, nor do we necessarily see Binx’s movement toward conversion. Yet the novel’s conclusion suggests that salvation can be achieved, that freedom from despair is possible, and that an authentic life can be lived.

Percy outside his family’s home on Arlington Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama. Percy traced his earliest memories, such as watching a Krazy Kat cartoon at a local movie theater, back to his childhood in this neighborhood.

Percy (standing at right) with his father, LeRoy Percy Sr., and his younger brother, LeRoy Percy Jr. Percy’s father, a successful lawyer and Princeton alumnus, suffered frequent bouts of anxiety and depression. In 1929, like his own father a few years earlier, the elder LeRoy committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Shortly thereafter, Walker lost his mother in a car crash that was deemed an accident. These events haunted Percy throughout his life and shaped some of the thematic concerns of his fiction.

Walker (right) with his brothers, LeRoy (middle) and Phinizy (left), during their years in Birmingham.

Percy as a pre-med student at UNC–Chapel Hill, “on the way to Charlotte at the beginning of the holidays.” When asked why he chose to study medicine Percy said, “Everybody in my family had been lawyers, it was a tradition in my family to be going into law. And I knew damn well I didn’t want to do that.”

A picture of Percy taken in New York while he was a medical student at Columbia University. During his internship at Bellevue Hospital, Percy contracted tuberculosis and was prescribed a “rest cure.” He spent the next few years reading literature seriously and eventually began working on a manuscript titled The Charterhouse, which he later destroyed.

Walker (middle) with brother LeRoy (left) and lifelong friend Shelby Foote (right) outside the home of Walker and LeRoy’s cousin, William Alexander Percy, in Greenville, Mississippi. Called “Uncle Will,” William Alexander Percy, an accomplished poet and memoirist, raised Walker and his siblings after their mother’s death. Walker described going to live with his cousin as “the most important thing that ever happened to me as far as my writing is concerned. I never would have been a writer without his influence.”

Percy celebrating Christmas with his wife, Mary Bernice, called Bunt, and his two daughters, Ann Boyd and Mary Pratt, in 1956. Although he had yet to produce a publishable novel, that year he had cause to celebrate when one of his first philosophical articles, “The Man on the Train,” appeared in the fall issue of Partisan Review, an esteemed literary journal.

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