Walker Percy: A Documentary Film


In Win Riley’s fine Walker Percy: A Documentary Film, Walker Percy’s friends, family, and biographers discuss the life, work, and philosophy of the author of The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, and The Thanatos Syndrome. Most notable in the film is the trenchant commentary and criticism of Jay Tolson and Paul Elie.

Narrated in part by Riley and Richard Ford, the short documentary recounts major facts familiar to those who know Percy’s life story: born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1916; grandfather’s suicide in 1917, father’s suicide in 1929, mother’s death by automobile accident when Percy was sixteen years old; life in Greenville, Mississippi, under the tutelage of his bachelor cousin William Alexander “Uncle Will” Percy; Columbia Medical School and contraction of tuberculosis while performing autopsies at Bellevue Hospital; the sanitarium years and his reading of Kierkegaard, Marcel, Maritain, and Heidegger; abandonment of his medical career; marriage to Bunt Percy; conversion to Roman Catholicism; struggles at novel-writing; publication of his first novel, the National-Book-Award-winning The Moviegoer, at age forty-five; subsequent novels and books of essays; eminence as “Southern writer”; his ushering of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces to publication, eleven years after Toole’s suicide, at the unrelenting insistence of Kennedy Toole’s inimitable mother Thelma Toole; natural death in 1990.

Telling the story are Elie, Tolson, Ford, Walter Issacson, Robert Coles, Linda Whitney Hobson, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Thomas Cowan, Rhoda Faust, Marcus Smith, and Ben C. Toledano. Bunt Percy herself was also interviewed for the film. And so was Phin Percy, Walker’s youngest brother. Phin was seven years old when he and their mother drove off a bridge into a river, where she died; he speaks candidly about his mother in one of the film’s more poignant moments. There is also wonderful—and remarkably well-preserved—home footage of Walker Percy with his young family; an archival C-SPAN interview with Shelby Foote, Percy’s lifelong friend, with Foote at one point telling the well-known tale of their pilgrimage to the home of William Faulker, in Oxford, Mississippi—and Percy’s refusal to leave the car. There is also a very amusing clip of Thelma Toole, sitting at a piano, literally singing her praises to Walker Percy.

Walker Percy: A Documentary Film was a selection of the 2010 New Orleans Film Festival. It is being shown now in limited screenings (which can be requested) and is also available for purchase on DVD.

There are also trailers online.

Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →