The Thanatos Syndrome

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Back in 2010, National Review listed 10 post-1950 novels written by Americans deemed by the editors to be fine conservative novels. (List here.) I had read two (Advise and Consent and Bonfire of the Vanities.) So this shows how deep some of my to-be-read piles are: I finally got around to reading a third.

The Thanatos Syndrome is a 1987 novel by the late Walker Percy, his last. It is a sequel of sorts to Love in the Ruins, which was written in 1971. (I read that too, but back then, and I remember nearly nothing about it.) The protagonist is Dr. Thomas More, a Louisiana psychiatrist.

When the book opens, Tom, a once-famous brain researcher, has returned home from a stint in prison. He'd been selling large quantities of uppers and downers to truck-stop middlemen, who would resell to long-haul truckers. He's restarted his private practice, and notices unusual behavior in a number of his patients: they are (somewhat) mellowed out, but prone to unnatural responses. (Specifically: they become unable to recognize context switches. Tom asks a patient, out of the blue, where St. Louis is, and gets an ordinary, correct, response without notice of the conversation's discontinuity.) A priest has taken up occupying a local fire tower, and refuses to come down. And Tom's wife has become a surprising prodigy at contract bridge.

A little detective work finds nefarious forces at work: social engineers with only the "common good" at heart are injecting "sodium-24" into the water supply, which is causing the mental changes. (In real life, sodium-24 is highly radioactive with a 15-hour half-life, so this is pretty much a plot device.) The perpetrators tell themselves, and anyone who'll listen, that it's a public health measure, much like fluoridation. But Tom uncovers an underlying seam of animal-like behavior, perversion, and a genteel cult of death.

And, even amid all the sordidness, the book is also quite amusing in spots.

Percy, like James Lee Burke, describes the Louisiana bayous with painfully beautiful prose. (Almost so I want to go there; I keep telling myself: calm down, it's probably hot, muggy, and buggy, and you're not a fisherman.)

Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:15 PM EST