Walker Percy never tired of asking a simple question: why are people happy in circumstances that ought to make them miserable? It was a question he set for himself in his first collection of philosophical essays, The Message in the Bottle, and in one way or another his best novels—The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins—are his best attempts at providing an answer.
Percy may have been America's most beloved serious novelist. This was not so much because of his manifest literary gifts as for the bemused sympathy he extended to his characters and, therefore, to his readers. He was a kind man, who was well-known for answering letters and telephone calls from perfect strangers. A friend of mine was once forced to call Dr. Percy, whom she did not know at all, on behalf of a very disturbed man who claimed to be the novelist's friend. He could not have been kinder, and did what he could to help in a very difBcult situation.
I began reading Walker Percy as a college student but only made his acquaintance on the occasion of the 1988 Ingersoll Prizes. As a recipient he was both modest and amusing. After meeting several of our contributing editors who had a Chapel Hill connection, he exclaimed, "Tom, what kind of magazine are you running? It looks like a Chapel Hill conspiracy." Of course, he too was a Tarheel.
After the banquet we continued...