Saint Walker Percy, M.D.

I won’t ask what books you’d recommend for reading now, in this pandemic lockdown.

The director of Washington & Lee’s alumni education office did that, thinking of all those alums sheltering in place. He asked the faculty what book would help pass the time if you were marooned on an island. The response began with a few emails, then became a torrent. We faculty members couldn’t limit ourselves to one book, and we couldn’t resist adding commentary.

When the number of responses reached 65, Rob Fure, the instigator, cut it off, made an attractive PDF file and sent that off to W&L alumni in this time of plague. (The Plague of Albert Camus was named by a French professor and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez had two recommenders.)

I put in a plug for a book I happened to be reading by Chris Hedges, The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009) and a novel by Larry Wright, The End of October, although I haven’t read it. It’s about a pandemic, a well-reported fiction so disconcertingly recent that I knew about it from the recent attention it was getting. Being in the journalism department, I thought I should plug works by journalists. (They are two good ones, both of whom I happened to have encountered years ago through mutual friends. But I digress).

Percy let

Really, the writer who I think is perfect for these times is Walker Percy. Percy was a calm, end-of-the-world sort, sheltering in place down in Covington, La., next to a bayou, knocking back Bourbon neat and wondering “How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, And What One Has to Do With the Other,” the subtitle of thought-pieces he collected in The Message in the Bottle. Who finds or sends a message in a bottle but a Robinson Crusoe, an island castaway?

Percy was a doctor, a pathologist, and might have become a psychiatrist but gave it up for writing. Writing and wondering. (I have this photo of him leaning back in a wicker chair on his porch, framed with a handwritten letter from him to somebody. He’s crossed out the “M.D.” on his stationery, but the handwriting is as distinctly sloppy as any doctor’s.)

I’ve been thinking about how exciting it must be now to be one of the hundreds of scientists around the world working on this pandemic problem. So many disciplines have so much work to do, no time to waste. Collecting and crunching epidemiological data. Analyzing genetic assays. Testing therapies. Puzzling over the odd symptoms, like strokes and blood clots in young patients. These are the kinds of puzzles that Percy loved, and put into his novels. They’re metaphors of the problem of being human, but also interesting in their own nature. Problems like this put us in the position of Robinson Crusoe, marooned on our island of Self and of Earth. I’m going to transcribe here a big fat paragraph from near the beginning of Percy’s novel The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), because it describes the kind of researcher who, I hope, is on the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

For example, a physician I once knew—not a famous professor or even a very successful internist, but a natural diagnostician, one of those rare birds who sees things out of the corner of his eye, so to speak, and gets a hunch—was going about his practice in New Orleans. He noticed a couple of things most of us would have missed. He had two patients in the same neighborhood with moderate fever, enlarged lymph nodes, especially in the inguinal region. One afternoon as he took his leave through the kitchen of a great house in the Garden District—in those days one still made house calls!—the black cook whom he knew muttered something like: “I sho wish he wouldn’t be putting out that poison where the chirren can get holt of it.” Now most physicians would not even listen or, if they did, would not be curious and would leave with a pleasantry to humor old what’s-her-name. But a good physician or a lucky physician might prick up his ears. There was something about that inguinal node—“Poison? Poison for what? Rats?” “I mean rats.” “You got rats?” “I mean. Look here.” There in the garbage can, sure enough, a very dead rat with a drop of blood hanging like a ruby from its nose. The physician went his way, musing. Something nagged at the back of his head. Halfway down St. Charles, click, a connection was made. He parked, went to a pay phone, called the patient’s father. “Did you put out rat poison in your house?” No, he had not. Is Anne okay? “She’ll be fine but get her to Touro for a test.” At the hospital he aspirated the suspicious inguinal node. Most doctors would have diagnosed mononucleosis, made jokes with the young lady about the kissing disease—So you’re just back from Ole Miss, what do you expect, ha ha. He took the specimen to the lab and told the technician to make a smear and stain with carbol-fuchsin. He took one look. There they were, sure enough, the little bipolar dumbbells of Pasteurella pestis. The plague does in fact turn up from time to time in New Orleans, the nation’s largest port. It’s no big deal nowadays, caught in time. A massive shot of antibiotics and Anne went home.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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