The Thanatos Syndrome: Walker Percy's final novel

Commonweal / November 1987

* * *
The Thanatos Syndrome
by Walker Percy
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. 1987, 372 pp
* * *

reviewed by Jim Forest

Walker Percy is southern and Catholic, Kurt Vonnegut northern and secular, not minor differences, but perhaps they recognize each other as relatives. Both are inclined to use comedy, at times the slapstick variety, in order to talk about some of the unfunniest subjects in the world, like war, euthanasia, abortion, and other justifications we cook up for killing one another.

Percy’s hero in this book, as in his earlier novel, Love in the Ruins, is Dr. Thomas More, resident of a rural Louisiana parish (what we Yankees call a county) and a direct descendant of St. Thomas More. Like his ancestor, he has been a prisoner, but for selling amphetamines to truckers rather than for acts of fidelity to conscience. Also like his ancestor, he is a Catholic, except in the current generation, things being what they are, More’s connection to his Church is threadbare. Still there is a bit of religious glue holding body and soul together. Tom More isn’t able to make himself comfortable with the contemporary mercies that pave the way to the gas chamber and the abortorium.

In The Thanatos Syndrome we encounter a few psychiatrists who makes heaps of money running the Qualitarian Center, where the old and/or feeble-minded are provided with Death with Dignity. In their spare time, using a federal grant, the clever doctors are in the midst of a local experiment that they regard as the best idea since fluoride in toothpaste. While sticking to bottled water for themselves, they are lacing the parish water supply with a substance (borrowed from a nearby nuclear generator) that knocks out the part of the brain that makes people dangerous and miserable. Violent crime has evaporated in the area effected. Black prisoners are singing the old spirituals as they cheerfully pick cotton on the local prison farm. Sexual-transmitted diseases have practically disappeared. No more AIDS, no more herpes.

At first glance it looks like the doctors have found a chemical method to mass produce the lifestyle of the saints. People drinking the local water aren’t inclined to do the sorts of things that make headlines in The National Enquirer.

But not quite. It turns out that adults who drink too much of the local water find that the ideal sex-partners are children.

The part of the brain made dormant also happens to be where the soul and conscience hang out. It is the patch that has most to do with creativity, verbal skills, and what makes us who we are. Those drinking the local water are better at telling you exactly where St. Louis is than in making a sentence that includes a subject, verb and object. They are a whiz at bridge but incapable of theology.

Percy links what is now happening in manipulative medical technology in the US and what was going on with psychiatry in Germany from the twenties until the collapse of the Nazis, at the same time pointing out that you don’t have to like Hitler (the German shrinks didn’t) to end up doing some of the worst things that happened in Hitler’s Germany.

Percy integrates a steady stream of observation about the American Way of Life and what is like living in “the Age of Not Knowing What to Do.” For example here is Tom More reflecting about a patient who, before the local water ironed out all depression and anxiety, felt like a failure:

“What is failure? Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time. Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print. But in the movies they don’t show the failures. What you see are the takes that work. So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded- off way. It looks as if real failure is unspeakable. TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories. Because that is not the way life is. Life is fits and starts, mostly fits.”

Percy continues his assessment of contemporary American Catholicism that began in Love in the Ruins. Fr. Kev Kevin, the former director of the Love Clinic, has abandoned the controls of the Orgasmatron computer and given up the priesthood as well. He is “into Hinduism,” has married a former Maryknoll nun who is taking up witchcraft, and together they run a marriage encounter center in a rehabilitated stable.

In The Thanatos Syndrome we meet a very different kind of priest: Fr. Simon Smith, a modern stylite, fasting atop a fire-watch tower as the book begins. People consider him crazy as a loon. Maybe he is, but he’s a saint as well. His “confession” is the keystone of the novel. Here we discover that his vocation is an on-going penitential work having chiefly to do with the devastation his father helped bring about in Europe — he is the son of one of the liberal German physicians (anti-Nazis one and all) whose work to “relieve suffering” via euthanasia helped prepare the way for the Holocaust.

Father Smith’s big discovery in life was that “the only people I got along with were bums, outcasts, pariahs, family skeletons, and the dying.” It isn’t a boast. “I don’t know about Mother Teresa, but I [did what I did] because I liked it, not for love of the wretched … dying people were the only people I could stand. They were my kind … Dying people, suffering people, don’t lie.”

* * *