Love in the Ruins
Date Published: September 1, 1999 (Originally published in 1971)
Number of Pages: 384
Print Price: $11.56
eBook Price: $9.99
Set in the crazy years following the Second Vatican Council, Love in the Ruins is a trenchant satire, one that oscillates its well-aimed commentary between bourgeois foolishness and an equally foolish emerging counterculture.
Our protagonist and guide through this literary landscape is psychiatrist Dr. Tom More (the saint who shares his name is a collateral ancestor). His former curate, the former Father Kev Kevin, is now married to a former nun. Kev “counsels . . . takes clinical notes, and runs the vaginal console” (p. 123) at the Love Clinic, where “volunteers perform sexual acts singly, in couples, and in groups, beyond viewing mirrors in order that man might learn more about the human sexual response” (p.14).
Dr. Tom still believes in God, but he has not “eaten Jesus” in some time. Because he feels completely unrepentant for his own sins of lust, his current confessor, sighing, cannot give Tom absolution. As the state of his soul, so the state his parish:
“Just below me . . . rises the yellow brick barn-and-silo of Saint Michael’s. A surprisingly large parish it was, big enough to rate a monsignor. But the church is empty now, abandoned five years ago. The stained glass is broken out. Cliff swallows nest in the fenestrae. . .” (p.5).
In addition to the church where he once found comfort, Tom’s personal life has also changed dramatically. His teenage daughter and only child, Samantha, recently died of an incurable neuroblastoma. In the aftermath of grief, his Episcopalian wife Doris turned to “spirituality” and ran off to Cozumel, with a gay British pseudo-Buddhist guru named Alistair Fuchs-Forbes.
When Doris died herself a short time later, she left Tom a rich man. He inherited her R.J. Reynolds stock. But cannibalistic vines, like the Triffids, creep deeper every day into Tom’s house, golf club, life and brain.
“. . . I am a physician,” he tells us, “a not very successful psychiatrist; an alcoholic, a shaky middle-aged man subject to depressions and elations and morning terrors . . . a bad Catholic; a widower and cuckold . . .” (p. 11).
We enter his story at a cusp in his time and place. It’s a cusp whose description still resonates in 2013:
“Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world . . . the question came to me: has it happened at last? Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good. . .” (p. 3).
In suburban Paradise Estates, where Tom lives, “The scientists, who are mostly liberals and unbelievers, and the businessmen, who are mostly conservative and Christian, live side by side . . . There are minor differences. When conservative housewives drive to town to pick up their maids in the Hollow, the latter ride on the back seat in the old style. Liberal housewives make their maids ride on the front seat. . . “ (p. 15).
Outside the artificial golf development lies Honey Island Swamp, “ . . . once the haunt of raccoon and alligator . . . now rubbed bare as monkey islands at the zoo by all manner of disaffected folk: Bantu guerrillas, dropouts from Tulane and Vanderbilt, M.I.T. and Loyola; draft dodgers, deserters from the Swedish army . . . antipapal Catholics, malcontented Methodists, ESPers, UFOers, Aquarians, ex-Ayn Randers, Choctaw Zionists . . . and even a few old graybeard Kerouac beats, wiry old sourdoughs who carry pilgrim staffs, recite sutras, and leap from hummock to hummock as agile as mountain goats . . .” (pp. 15-16).
Though More spends almost as much time in the hospital as he does in his office “. . .recovering from seizures of alternating terror and delight with intervening periods of immense longing . . .” (p. 28), Tom More is a good-hearted doctor who treats the disenfranchised children of the Swamp with as much consideration as he does their parents in Paradise Estates.
He’s blessed with a faithful nurse, “. . . a beautiful though dour Georgia Presbyterian of the strict observance named Ellen Oglethorpe . . .” who “. . . approves of money on religious grounds . . .” and is willing to take away his bottle when necessary for him to see patients (p. 30). Tom first met Ellen in the hospital, “wrists bandaged and lashed to the rails” (p. 109).
He promptly propositioned her. “She almost did!” (ibid.). But instead she followed Tom back to his private psychiatry practice; and as his private office nurse, keeps a close eye on his welfare. During one of his residencies at the local asylum, “. . . I leapt out of bed at the height of the storm and yelled at my fellow patients: ‘Don’t be afraid brothers! Don’t cry! Don’t tremble! I have made a discovery that will cure you! Believe me, brothers!’ ‘We believe you, Doc!’ the madmen cried in the crashing thunder, and they did. Madmen, like possessed souls in the Gospels, know when you are telling the truth” (p. 28).
Tom has invented a “Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer” that can measure the electrical regions of the brain associated with psychological disturbances. The machine really works, and Tom hopes people might finally be healed of their psychological traumas.
But things start to go wrong. A mysterious man who claims to be a government agent stalks Tom and modifies the machine, making it possible to treat people’s brains. Tom’s ambivalent colleague also passes out prototype models indiscriminately, beginning with students at a medical conference, and his “pilot project” yields unprecedented results.
The treatment process involves an ion that can turn the ‘Heavy Salt’ of the Swamp into a lethal cloud. Tom overhears a plot to take over the golf club, Bantu guerrillas kidnap a bus full of baton-twirling-competition mothers, and to top it all off, the President and Vice President are coming to town. Tom himself is kidnapped and imprisoned in his former parish church. He designs his escape by remembering that “I was on the building committee” (p.308).
Tom keeps trying to figure out how he can save all three women he loves – among them a competitive Texas cellist who assisted his escape with her horse; a spoiled but beautiful young secretary from the Love Clinic; and the redoubtable Ellen. Amid Bantu snipers and the ominous looming cloud, Tom stands at a cusp, arguing with God on the Fourth of July.
Tom recalls his last conversation with his daughter:
“Papa, have you lost your faith?”
. . .
“Just promise me one thing, Papa.”
“Don’t commit the one thing for which there is no forgiveness. . . The sin against grace.”(pp. 373-374).
As both bourgeois and countercultural perceptions of reality unravel all around him, psychiatrist Tom More begins to recognize more fully the dangers of detached metaphysical abstraction – what he calls in his psycho-medical jargon “angelism.” He recalls his former appreciation of the Catholic sacramentals. He perceives in a new way how the physical signs of grace help to keep individual human beings on this planet anchored, in their bodies, their identities and their sanity.
Author Percy employs a canny wit, and a grasp of the absurd that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. might well have envied, to deliver a modern parable about the limits of science and the tensions of faith. But unlike Vonnegut’s universe, where patterns iterate forever and the world ends in ice from pole to pole, Percy’s universe contains a God. And Dr. Tom More, “bad Catholic” or not, does eventually manage to find true happiness at last.
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1.1 inches
Subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter Catholic, Ink. - click here - receive book reviews and the column "The Catholic Imagination and You"
Be part of the Catholic Literary Revival.