Monday, June 2, 2014

Walker Percy, True Detective

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Walker Percy enthusiasts have wondered when one of his novels would find its way to Hollywood. I am convinced the famed Southern Catholic author has already made his mark — but not in the way one might expect. The HBO series True Detective is an explicit and crude show at times that nonetheless is how I picture Walker Percy crime noir.

It's a man within a man... Know what that reminds me of?
An obvious theme of True Detective is existentialism, most keenly felt by the audience through the monologues of Detective Rust Cohle and in a more blunt fashion through the experiences of Detective Martin Hart. Rust scoffs at belief in God but cannot make sense of life once he's written off the Creator. It's all seemingly pointless, a feeling accentuated by the personal tragedy of losing his young daughter in a car accident. His intense self-analysis is similar to that of another Percy character, Will Barrett, in The Last Gentleman.

Martin is an alcoholic womanizing Christian family man. Maggie Hart describes her detective husband as someone who "didn't know who he was, so he didn't know what he wanted." This effectively sums up a typical problem of the Walker Percy character, especially The Moviegoer's Binx Bolling. The ennui of this Louisiana stockbroker persists no matter how many women he pursues or films he sees at the cinema. Martin Hart's internal conflict continues, despite his seemingly stable job and family life. His is an unexamined life, marked by constantly following animal lust and an urge to drunkenness. His Christianity is the type suspicious of philosophy, theology, and science — preferring instead the brief emotional highs of the travelling preacher. It makes him feel good just as indulging in whiskey and women to bring him pleasure. It causes him no opportunity for self-reflection or, more critically, no examination of conscience. It may be just this sort of Christianity that another Southern Catholic author, Flannery O'Connor, believed to populate the "Christ-haunted South."

This is my brooding face.
Despite all the nihilism Cohle's known for, the show is named True Detective after all, not just an allusion to the magazine known for its sleazy covers — there is a truth to be found by the detectives. In fact, it's this "debt" that drives Cohle after losing his job at the Louisiana CID to keep on the case, long after the police assume it's been solved and the villains hope it's been forgotten. This debt to the truth rouses Hart as well, for deep down, he knows this one thing is knowable and real in the world of fleeting pleasures where he wanders.

Now, the closest Walker Percy got to a detective story was The Thanatos Syndrome, which featured Doctor Tom More, the "bad Catholic" protagonist of previous novel Love in the Ruins. There was a mystery to be solved, yet it wasn't like the typical pulp thriller. It took its time, as Dr. More investigated high sodium levels appearing in drinking water and the resulting behavioral changes in the people of the parishes of Louisiana. He's a man with the intelligent perceptiveness of Rust Cohle and the bad habits of Martin Hart. Percy is at his most memorable with this self-analysis of Tom More: "I believe in God and the whole business, but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all."

Both Cohle and More tragically lost daughters at a very young age, contributing to their current outlooks on life. One peculiar parallel between Rust Cohle and Tom More is how they both notice unnatural metals in the environment around them. Cohle is fixated on the taste of aluminum and ash, while More detects dangerously high levels of heavy sodium. On top of that, Tom More undergoes a character arc similar to Rust Cohle. In Love in the Ruins, More had developed a gadget, the "Ontological Lapsometer," he was sure could cure the ills of the soul.

Yet, during the events of The Thanatos Syndrome (and after a spell in prison), Dr. More is less concerned with the problems of the world at large but instead with things closer to home. Rust also begins brimming with opinions about what's wrong with the world and the people around him. After leaving the force led to a similar period of life in limbo, he demonstrates he concerns himself less with the grand scheme of things and more with concrete ways to solve a particularly heinous crime.

Another Rust Cohle connection could be seen in the Thanatos character Father Smith. The world-weary priest lives in a fire tower as a sort of hermitage and protest against society. The irreligious loner Cohle nevertheless keeps a crucifix on the wall of his spartan flat, a sign of contradiction both to his own atheism and the evangelical Christianity he despises. The connection to the old priest comes from imagery created by a villain who curiously refers to Cohle as a "little priest."

"I believe in God and the whole business, but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all."

Father Smith, like Rust, is struggling with living in the modern world. Father Smith remarks, "Do you know why this century has seen such terrible events happen? The Turks killing two million Armenians, the Holocaust, Hitler killing most of the Jews in Europe, Stalin killing fifteen million Ukrainians, nuclear destruction unleashed, the final war apparently inevitable? It is because God agreed to let the Great Prince Satan have his way with men for a hundred years — this one hundred years, the twentieth century. And he has. How did he do it? No great evil scenes, no demons — he's too smart for that. All he had to do was leave us alone. We did it. Reason warred with faith. Science triumphed. The upshot? One hundred million dead."

Cohle has had to deal with the death of his young daughter as well as the casual cruelty of the criminals and serial murderer(s) he and Hart track. Cohle can't help saying how intelligent he is compared to the Bible-believing hicks of the deep South, but anyone can see there's a deep pain that caused him to first consider atheism. This brings to mind a quote of Flannery O'Connor, which Walker Percy echoed in commenting on his purpose for writing The Thanatos Syndrome: "One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him.... If other ages felt less, they saw more.... In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber."

The mystery at the heart of The Thanatos Syndrome concerns influential people with only the "best intentions," or dare I say tenderness, for society. Just as in True Detective, some of the villains make up a ring of child abusers. Doctor More's resolution of the child abuse subplot is not the end of the story. Nor, one would imagine, is the ending of True Detective's satanic/voodoo child-sacrificing cult the end of the corruption and death that it wrought. In Percy's book, the chief villains have the backing of the newest thought in the social sciences. Defeat them and others will take their place. The shadowy, powerful men behind the cult of the King in Yellow will not be vanquished so easily either. For detectives Cohle and Hart, as with the Walker Percy protagonist, there is no perfect happy ending awaiting them in this life, but they've learned enough to hopefully make the rest of their sojourn on planet Earth a little more bearable. Such is life in a fallen world. All that remains for us is to make of it what we can and, as Catholics, to answer the call to strive to holiness and be a sign of contradiction in a world despairing of itself.

Marin Hart: "Didn't you... used to lay there and look up... at the stars?" 
Rust Cohle: "...once, there was only dark. If you ask me, light's winning."
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