Picks and Pans Review: The Thanatos Syndrome

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Walker Percy

"I discovered that it is not sex that terrifies people," says Dr. Tom More, the psychiatrist-narrator of this adventuresome new Percy novel. "It is that they are stuck with themselves.... They are frightened out of their wits that they are not doing what, according to experts, books, films, TV, they are supposed to be doing." The not-so-good doctor is just out of prison after serving two years for selling drug prescriptions too freely. He returns to his Louisiana home, his wife, two small children and a couple of devoted servants, but soon he finds that something has happened to the people who live nearby. Eventually Dr. More discovers that heavy sodium has been added to the water supply for a prison farm, a university and a slum area. Crime has dropped. Grade averages are up. The football team is winning. More's wife has even become an astonishing bridge player. The experiment is the work of a couple of the doctor's colleagues who expect him to join them in the secret project. Meanwhile a priest has a seizure, climbs a fire tower and refuses to come down. Later More's own children are in peril from a gang of sex abusers; the doctor himself is locked up for parole violation, and the priest is convinced that the killings of the handicapped and elderly in Germany before World War II can happen here. Percy is concerned with weighty stuff—his hero is the namesake of 16th-century Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More. But the novel has a lot of racing around, beautiful atmosphere (you can smell the river, taste the chicory) and some funny, tender scenes. Percy is not afraid of life's complexities either. He often touches on the quicksilver relationships between Southern blacks and whites, between men and women in love, between men and religion—and fresh, sometimes breathtaking, truths come gleaming through. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $17.95)

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