Walker Percy (The Impossible Dream)

“Waking wide-eyed dreams come as fitfully as swampfire.”*

Years ago artist George Rodrigue owned a camp in Butte la Rose, Louisiana on the Atchafalaya Basin.  He purchased it as a small, cabin-like structure on stilts and quickly built on bedrooms, extending a raised walkway to the river and over the swamp.
-click photo to enlarge-

(“With Swamp Dogs,” says the artist about his recent large-scale works on chrome, “I combine these mysteries, the loup-garou and the feux follets.” Read more here-)

In those pre-internet and (in our case) cell phone days, the early 1990s, we hid out easily, escaping society, gallery commitments, and even well-meaning family and friends, as we searched for something undefined, yet irresistible, a new path in our lives.  Between Carmel, where I worked at the Rodrigue Gallery, and this camp, we sought a new, unaffected reality.
I thought of this search, a lifelong commitment, really, renewed recently on our West Coast pilgrimage, as I read at last Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, my choice during a celebratory week within the surreal city of Las Vegas.  (As we watched the Bellagio fountains, we admired the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, while wondering if the full moon, too, was contrived for our pleasure).
(pictured, Walker Percy, 1982 by George Rodrigue, painted for the Flora Levy Lecture Seriesat the University of Louisiana at Lafayette-)
Unexpectedly, I found The Moviegoer familiar, “the sudden confrontation of a time past, a time so terrible and splendid in its arch-reality,” reminding me of my father’s comments in the National World War II Museum.  He noted, without expression, that the equipment, bunkers, and weapons were the same he used in the Vietnam War, where he served twenty-five years later in the United States Air Force.

“Dislocated is perhaps the proper state of Binx Boling and man or woman…”*

…wrote Walker Percy about his Moviegoer protagonist, and about himself and all of us.
Rodrigue photographed Percy (1916-1990) at his daughter’s Kumquat Bookstore in Covington, Louisiana, near New Orleans, where Percy lived for most of his adult life.

“It was a tiny wooden structure,” recalls Rodrigue, “so I posed him on the front porch where I took about thirty slides. 

“He was very serious and commented that he was at the bookstore part-time to help out his daughter.  I sensed an unhappiness or confusion in him.  But at the same time, he was agreeable regarding my instructions for placement and posing.  The whole session took about ten minutes.”

Did you get his autograph?  I asked.

“Honestly, I didn’t know who he was.  And I don’t think he knew me either.”

Partial to science and the arts over fiction, George never read Percy’s books and, although he attended the lecture at USL, he recalls nothing of its content.  However, the two express a similar interest in philosophy and a lifelong search for meaning, one through humanity and words, and the other through humanity and art.
To my surprise, as I searched on-line, I discovered another link between Percy and Rodrigue, an interview with Harvard University Professor of Psychiatry, Robert Coles (b. 1929).  I recognized the name, also from George’s series of ten Flora Levy Lecture paintings, but as the expert on John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (pub. 1980, LSU Press), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, twelve years after Toole’s suicide.  Walker Percy wrote the foreword for the famous story of Ignatius J. Reilly and was instrumental in the book’s publication.
(pictured, Robert Coles, 1981 by George Rodrigue; a portrait of John Kennedy Toole hangs on the oak-)
Coles, it turns out, is an expert not only on Percy and Toole, but also on the Medical Humanities, surely a weighty subject for Percy, who abandoned the medical profession following a lengthy illness after contracting tuberculosis during a lab autopsy.  Like other great writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and John Kennedy Toole, suicide haunted him, in this case with the early deaths of his parents.

“Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real?”*

George Rodrigue and I discuss often today, as we did within the swamps, of our dreams and of things much bigger than ourselves.  We talk of black holes and space exploration.  (As I write these words, in fact, unable to paint as he nurses a cold, George watches a documentary on comets.)  We ponder past lives and the idea that all humanity, in one way or another, seeks meaning.  We discuss the importance of our words and actions as they affect others, and as they affect the future.

“…she might now become what they had been and what as a woman had been denied her:  soldierly both in look and outlook.”*

And we recall our song, the one we sought on and off Broadway, the VCR, and Netflix, the one we sang countless times as we crossed the country in our truck, and the one we made ours when, unable to sleep, we danced beneath a full moon on the Atchafalaya Swamp.
Eudora Welty, who spoke at Walker Percy’s memorial service in 1990, speculated once that the South spawns great writers because not only are we talkers, we are talkers who are used to having listeners. 

“In the Rocky Mountains,” she observed, “a person might talk all day and get nothing back but an echo.”

*unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this post are from The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, 1961; the book, published when Percy was age 45, was his first novel; it won the National Book Award the following year-

-the first annual Walker Percy Festival will take place June 6-7, 2014 in St. Francisville, Louisiana; read more here

-Rodrigue’s original paintings of Walker Percy, Robert Coles, and other notables are on view through August 31, 2013 at the State Library of Louisiana.  Details here

-for a Toole-related essay, see the post, “Lucky Dog,” featuring, among other things, Rodrigue’s paintings of hot dogs-

The Other Side of the Painting (October 2013, UL Press), a book based on this blog, is now available for pre-order at your favorite independent bookstore or on amazon

-for more art and discussion, please join me on facebook

7 thoughts on “Walker Percy (The Impossible Dream)

  1. See? See?! Mr. Percy. Mr. Rodrigue. Mrs. Rodrigue. Masters and mistress of ambiguity. Leave it up to us to understand, and we will–each in our own way.

  2. Really? George Rodrigue didn't know the man he was photographing was Percy? And vice-versa? How deliciously apropos. Two key figures in 20th century literature and art (especially Southern literature and art) didn't know one another. Mr. Rodrigues mistook him for any ordinary man helping out with the daughter's bookstore or just biding his time among the front porches of the little shops on Lee Lane in Covington? That speaks well volumes as to why Percy said he liked living and writing in Covington. He called Covington a non-place (I'm a native of the town) in an Esquire article he wrote in the early 80s. Some locals took offense. But it was actually a compliment. Covington allowed him to live and write in relative peace. The few folks who pained him for his celebrity were out of towners who on rare occasion tired to hunt him down or those from far away who would ring him up on his published Covington residence phone number to tell him how much they adored his work. But sometimes at all hours of the night. Poor fellow didn't want to do so, but he had to get an unlisted number.

  3. Thank you for writing in, Ted. Your comments are a wonderful local perspective on the story. George sits next to me as I answer you and says, "I knew he was a writer, because I was commissioned to paint him for the university in Lafayette; but I had no idea that I was photographing and painting a legend."

  4. Thank you for your response. I live in NW Arkansas now (for almost 20 years) and am among many, many La. ex-patriots who ended up here with work (to either work for Walmart or sell to Walmart). I have an avocation in that I write for the regional newspaper when I feel like it. I am sort of a self appointed critic at large for the market up here that includes not only Bentonville but the college town Fayetteville, home of the Ark. Razorbacks. I sometimes reference things of my growing up in Covington/St. Tammany Parish. The natives of this area relate since Bentonville used to be a little town like Covington until it grew so much with Walmart people and vendors moving in. Sort of like Covington, except N.O. 'outflux' was the catalyst for growth in St. Tammany, even prior to Katrina. My point of my tale here is that, with your permission, I may use this little story (Percy and the non-meeting with Rodrigue) as an example in some future op/ed commentary. Would that be OK?

    By the way, I don't fly out of N.O. often but when I have done so lately I love seeing the 'blue dog' in the terminal. I have other tales to tell about Dr. Percy (as we called him locally) if you wish to hear. I can be reached at theobtalley@aol.com

    Thanks for your kind response. I am glad you like my 'local' perspective. Growing up in Covington in the 50s to 60s was wonderful. My high school classmates often say it was a fine place to live…Mayberry on the north side of the lake but just minutes from N.O.

    Oh, and as an artist and artist wife…you really MUST, absolutely MUST, come to Bentonville to see Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Have you been? If not, please contact me via the email address. I would insist on treating you to lunch at the museum's fabulous restaurant. And also, perhaps a meal at the Flying Fish on the downtown Bentonville Square…a sort of cross between a Cajun bayou place and a fish house on a S.E. Texas lake. Well done, considering how far we are from the Gulf.

  5. Very kind of you Ted— all of it! We have not yet been to Crystal Bridges, but it is on our short list for sure. We speak of it often. Thank you for your offer. You just may hear from us!

    Regarding using the blog post material, that would be fine, and I'm sure George and I would enjoy seeing the reference. I only ask that you send us a copy so that we know of the nod. An email to info@georgerodrigue.com to my attention will reach us.

    Thank you again for writing. Although we haven't been to your area of Arkansas, we have spent quite a bit of time in recent years in Little Rock working with the Thea Foundation, an arts education non-profit that inspired our foundation, the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts. It's been a wonderful partnership. And we are partial to Mary Gay Shipley's That Bookstore in Blytheville, one of our favorite independent booksellers, where we stopped through on tour many times in the late 90s/early 2000s. Kind regards-

  6. If I use the Percy/Rodrigue tale, even in a slight reference, I will surely let you know.

    Little Rock is a great city. One of the most livable cities/state capitals I know. Lived there for two years. NW Arkansas is just 3 hrs 15 minutes or so away from L.R. And along the way, on I-40 to the I-540 turn to the north, you can stop in Altus, Arkansas wine country. Been wine country in Arkansas for many decades, long before small, trendy regional wineries became the fashion. Thanks again for your reply.

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