I still remember when a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh handed me a copy of Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins one summer. A novel. I hadn't read many novels to that point. A few here and there, but not many. I was a grad student in philosophy. What did I want with fiction? I remember it became my recreational reading for a few weeks that summer, and at first I wondered what hit me. I had never ever read anything quite like this. His antihero characters were somehow captivating, despite all their banalities and flaws. There was an unexpected transparency about them -- like the guy (in another Percy novel) who argued with his psychologist, whom he was seeing because of the guilt he felt over an affair, that guilt was unavoidable after all, because he was guilty.
Love in the Ruins unfolded in its bizarre southern setting with antihero Thomas More musing over how much simpler life in the north was. To use a loose analogy, the northern mind is a bit like war movies made before Vietnam: think of The Sands of Iwo Jima, The Longest Day, or even The Green Beret, right at the outset of the war. The southern mind is more like Platoon, or Apocalypse Now. To read this as a simple contrast between absolutism and relativism would be to miss my point, because the northern mind is perhaps even more relativistic than the southern. No, it has to do with the level of reflection, the complexity of life and its existential questions, what Miguel de Unamuno called the Tragic Sense of Life. The North, despite its fashionable postmodern conceits, is more at ease with the rationalist projects of the Enlightenment than the South. The South is an untamed Faulknerian 'force of nature' that will destroy you, abandon you to the shallow puddle of your autoerotic self-indulgences, or show you how painfully deep the proverbial rabbit hole goes. Percy shows us how deep, and he does this by first hooking the reader unawares (why do I think of Kierkegaard's Diary of a Sedeucer?) into confronting the deep corners of his individual soul and the collective American psyche that he has never dared or even imagined examining.
Amy Welborn, "Walker Percy at 100" (The Catholic World Report, May 27, 2016) -- a good introduction.
[Hat tip to JM]