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Walker Percy's Voices
Michael Kobre. Walker Percy's Voices. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2000. x + 238 pp.
Michael Kobre is certainly not the first critic to employ Mikhail Bakhtin's theories about dialogic form to the work of Walker Percy; however, he is the first to do so to all six of Percy's novels. Fully recognizing that Percy can legitimately be accused of having had an increasingly overt moral and religious agenda in his fictional writing, Kobre nevertheless contends that Percy's "artistic representation of dialogue as it is woven into the very fabric of consciousness" saves him "from the simple, monologic didacticism to which a moralist can so easily fall prey. The anguished, anxious quality of his prose, brimming with voices struggling with one another in a contest for dominance, is his greatest strength." Such contending voices include the stoic ideals of Percy's Southern ancestors, most notably that of his cousin and foster parent, William Alexander Percy; the scientific approach in which he himself was trained as a medical professional at Columbia University; and, finally, the certainties of the Roman Catholic teaching authority that he embraced as an ardent convert in the late 1940s. There is little doubt that there was a real conflict within him in regard to the aforementioned intellectual ideals or that he had too a remarkable ear for the nuances of Southern dialogue, both white and black and especially for white with black (though even here Percy's subtle interpretations have an indulgent patrician ring that an Alice Walker might interpret as a kind of not-hearing-at-all). What has made Percy suspect in recent years is his strongly articulated resistance to the liberal voice--one that would champion a freer and less guilt-ridden sexuality in particular--since he himself, in spite of personal moral lapses, seems to have been so little seduced by its siren song.
Working against those who would take a more traditionally existentialist approach to this novelist, Kobre asserts that ideology is internalized and expressed in the nuances of tone and manners rather than merely imposed on the characters or presented as "ideas" that concern them overtly. Thus, when discussing The Moviegoer, Kobre claims that "Binx's transformation is embodied in Percy's language, in the play of voices that characterizes his narrative." Whether this kind of reading makes a great difference in the long run, however, remains in question. Indeed, in Kobre's clear and very accessible account, there are just a few places where his approach affords insights that others have missed or simply not emphasized [End Page 496] as much. Moreover, Kobre plunges into his material so instantly that only minimal background is offered on both the novelist's life and--very important in the case of Percy--his wider intellectual interests. Even in the case of the novels themselves, Kobre frequently skirts over or even ignores significant episodes that would call into question the validity of his own dialogic agenda. Too often too he tries to excuse what seem to be unnuanced Percy voice-overs as constitutive of a genuine emotional and intellectual engagement, and, while he does an excellent job in arguing for Love in the Ruins as satire, Kobre fails to judge Percy's last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, as embarrassingly weaker than anything that had gone before. The recent biographies of Percy suggest that some of the author's too obvious moralizing was the result of his sending off unfinished or not sufficiently reworked materials to meet a deadline, a circumstance that is more convincing than what Kobre is sometimes forced to argue.
University of Alabama, Birmingham