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Percy Found His Serenity in Covington


The following remembrance originally appeared in the St. Tammany Picayune (Covington, LA), May 17, 1990. Re-printed with permission.

When Walker Percy died May 10, the world lost one of the most respected writers of the 20th century. The world will feel the loss of the writer; his family and his friends will also feel the loss of the man.

Hundreds of people came to St. Joseph Abbey Saturday to honor the man they knew and loved. "I'm sure he has already charmed his way into heaven," the Rev. Thomas Clancy said in his eulogy. "Walker was a hard man to say no to."

He was a shy man unimpressed by his own fame. He didn't like to travel. He didn't like to make speeches and get awards. He liked to stay put in Covington with his wife, Bunt. The cautionary tales he wrote often dealt with the predicament of living in an ordinary place like Covington without being miserable, of making it through one ordinary afternoon after another. He made it through by writing.

He was an extraordinary man living a rather ordinary life here, driving his pickup to the post office every morning with his little dog Sweet Thing beside him, having a bacon cheeseburger and a chocolate shake for lunch at the Wendy's out on 190, watching his grandsons Jack and David run across the lawn at his home on the Bogue Falaya.

Although he was one of our most prominent writers, with all sorts of literary honors heaped upon him, he lived in Covington in relative obscurity. In a 1977 article in Esquire magazine, where he interviewed himself, he noted that Southerners don't take writers seriously and that's probably as it should be. "I've managed to live here for 30 years and am less well known than the Budweiser distributor," he wrote. That seemed to please him.

He did get an unlisted phone number several years ago because of calls from people in other places. They'd ring him up at all hours and ask him what "satyriasis" means or tell him they were moviegoers like Binx Bolling, the hero of his first novel.

A lot of people came to Louisiana during the years to seek him out, to ask him deep questions about his writing and his life and such things as existentialism. "I don't know what it means," he'd tell them. Interviewers went away with a romantic view of our little town and sometimes made Percy sound like someone out of a Longfellow poem. They liked to say that he lived in a cottage amid moss-draped oaks on the banks of "the river of mists."

But he described Covington as "neither here nor there...just an ordinary place in the pine trees." In fact, in a 1979 article in Esquire, he described Covington as "a pleasant little non-place" where nothing of note ever happened. As I recall, that raised the hackles of Covington's civic leaders, although he meant it as a compliment.

He meant that he found it a good place to write.

Percy didn't pretend to understand the business of writing. He called it a peculiar activity, a knack, a kind of magic, a stroke of luck, even though he rewrote and rewrote some more and threw hundreds of pages away.

Last year, when he was speaking to senior honors students at St. Paul's School, someone asked him which of his books he liked best. "I can't stand any of em," was his answer. He never went back and re-read his published work. "I can only look ahead," he said.

When I was working in a computer store a few years ago, he talked to me every now and then about buying a computer and a word processor. But I never encouraged him to switch from pencil and paper to keyboard and printer. One of the themes in his novels is the awesome power of modern science, and I was afraid that computer technology might change his writing somehow. I didn't want to have anything to do with his accidentally zapping a perfect sentence.

I wish I could have interviewed him. I would've liked to show the sly, funny side of him that intense students of his work tend to ignore. His writing may be deadly serious, but he often makes me laugh out loud.

Last year I asked if he'd let me do an interview, but he dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. "You know me and you've read all those other ones," he said. "Why don't you just make something up?"

The best interview of him was the one he did himself. He asked several tough questions, but then had the pleasure of not being his usual gentlemanly self, and refused to answer them. That was the way he wrote, asking disturbing questions, rather than giving easy answers. He liked to "get under a few people's skins," he told me, to irritate us and make us ponder our predicament. He didn't think life should be easy.

"Life is a mystery, love is a delight," he wrote. A mystery and a delight, Walker Percy was both.

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