New York: The Overlook Press, 2007
Lee bothered me for days. That’s not a bad thing, though. Because I saw myself in this book. Lee, the title character, is me. Right down to the hemorrhoids. Or, at least, he’s what I might be in thirty years.
Lee Pefley – or Dr. Lee Pefley, as he styles himself – is perhaps the most misanthropic character in all literature. He’s an old man in his seventies who has sold some property and moved back to his hometown in Alabama. But he finds the place rather changed. Gone is the imperfect little hamlet he grew up in, and in its place the modern world has plopped down. A weird, Southern-gothic take on it, but the modern world nonetheless, with all its soullessness and gutlessness.
Lee rents a room at a local boarding house, his only possessions a few articles of clothing and a large quantity of books. Exclusively the Western classics. He sleeps little, as old men do, and spends the days roaming the town, mentally annihilating everyone and everything he encounters. He and I have the same mission, you see: the destruction of the modern world. But in Lee’s case his hate soon expresses itself, mostly with the aid of his cane, in acts of violence and mayhem. Or does it? It’s not clear from the novel if these things actually happen, or are only imagined by Lee.
You see, Lee does have a vivid imagination. His move back home has been occasioned by the death of his beloved wife, Judy. But throughout the story he conjures her up and converses with her. One gets the feeling that Judy was the one source of joy in Lee’s life, the one thing in this world he did not hate. And with her loss, the hate is all he has left. Our enemies, of course, say that hate will destroy us. There is some truth to this, actually. Even a stopped clock . . .
As I have argued elsewhere it’s easy for our kind to become embittered by all that’s wrong with the world. If we don’t hold on to something that gives us joy, we could all become festering, nihilating old prunes like Lee. I fear I may be well on my way, as time and again reading this book I found myself identifying with him. As when the author tells us that “Deep was his hatred for the modern age, so deep and rich, a rich feast. How he envied the times to come, the world made clear” (p. 110).
And: “He now thought of himself as the unacknowledged prophet of the crumbling of the West. This was the good of books: for toying with Time. Old drawings in old books – he preferred this so much more than anything that was happening in the outside world. To his thinking, it were far more laudable to have been alive than to be alive, or than to be scheduled for the future” (p. 15). Do you see yourself in this too?
Lee’s reactions to things are uncannily like my own, and yours I’ll wager. Lee encounters a child: “He could see in this snot-nosed infant that taxpayer and sports fan of the future who was to be given as much voting power as he himself had ever had” (p. 12). And: “There was a crowd of gesticulating sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds all talking at the same time – he wanted to puke. They simply could not sit still. All his life he had wanted to identify what it was the masses most loathed, and then to see that they got it in spades. What he craved now was to force these children into utter motionlessness, days and days and days. To his thinking, nothing proved the weakness of this class of people more than their everlasting need for action, and for each other” (p. 12). The book is filled with such stuff, wherein Mr. Perdue seems to be reading my mind – our mind.
As I read further, however, and got to know Dr. Pefley better, a strange feeling took hold of me. I began by recognizing myself in him, and felt pleasure. But after a while this became displeasure, and just a tad bit of this was shame. I had the same feeling I got years earlier reading Flannery O’Connor and seeing myself in some of the snotty “intellectual” characters that she skewered so accurately and mercilessly.
“He felt a spasm at the base of his neck, followed by a headache that began spreading in a slow way, like a blotter in ink. It was his hatred. Never had he achieved that toleration said to be the final result of wisdom; in fact, he wanted nothing to do with it. What he did want was an advanced torture machine with the whole world attached” (pp. 25-26). That’s me all right. But that’s not good, and I know it. It’s not healthy to set one’s expectations of other people so high that one winds up hating all of humanity.
And aren’t we supposed to be all about loving our own? This is the contradiction so many Right Wingers find themselves stuck in. I’ve known people who’ve actually given up on the Cause, saying “Why should I work to save the White Race when they’re too damned stupid to see that they need saving? When they’d sooner spit in my face than thank me?” But the truth is that almost all people, in all races, are sheep. We just have the whitest, most promising sheep of all. Properly led, they’re glorious. Otherwise, yes, they’re so annoying one wants to hook them up to a torture machine. But this is where we really do have to learn toleration, which is where wisdom – and love of our own – should, in fact, lead us.
Lee does not love his own. He cannot connect. He returns to his hometown but feels no kinship with these people, only with his books. (Why does he go home? Is there something in himself, deep down, that yearns for connection, some part his conscious mind might deny?) For him the world divides into those that read and those that do not. And the books also have to be of the right kind. Lee likes to get in staring contests. He does so with one man early in the novel and Perdue tells us “The man was weak. Lee’s gaze had ten thousand books behind it” (p. 13). And: “Who read the most books, and read well, it seemed to him, to that person belonged the world. As for the little people, those who did things, carrying out activities, they were good only for doing things and should be disqualified from reproducing” (p. 77).
For me, the heart of the novel was a long episode in which Lee, roving the countryside, winds up tarrying a while with an old farmer. The man is a good soul, a real salt of the earth. But of course Lee looks down on him. “Where are your books?” Lee asks him repeatedly. The old farmer senses his condescension and tells Lee that he has, after all, been to school. “Oh, yes, but you don’t take it seriously,” Lee shoots back. “I mean for you it’s simply a measure of getting ready for life, isn’t it so?” (p. 60). But what else should it be? The irony of Lee is that all his book-reading has not done him any good. He cannot relate to others, cannot take joy in life, cannot – for all intents and purposes – live.
And he has the gall to tell the farmer, who’s raised six children, that “life is a getting ready for books.” When the man speaks of what a good woman his late wife was, Lee responds “Look, my wife had four degrees. From four different universities too” (p. 63). It was about then – on page sixty-three – that I parted company with Lee. I’d like to think that whatever sense of superiority I have vis-à-vis others has to do with my knowledge and my insight – not with how many books I’ve read, or how many degrees I have. But there’s a bit of that in me as well, and I’m not proud of it.
I don’t know Tito Perdue, but I suspect Lee is his bad side too – and what he thinks he could become, given the wrong set of circumstances. I’m not going to reveal to you what happens to Lee. You’ll just have to read the book. But I think you can guess that he’s not moving toward a bright and rosy future.
The lesson I learned from Lee is kind of like the one I learned from my parents. My mother and father bequeathed to me two shining examples of exactly the sort of person I don’t want to be, but could nevertheless become. My parents are like the bad parts of my character personified by some crafty novelist. And I do kind of look at life as if it’s a text, wherein everyone and everything is a symbol or a lesson of some kind, directed at me.
Still, Lee was more to me than just a cautionary tale; a kind of “there but for the grace of God . . .” thing. What it communicated to me more than anything else was the need for what Confucius called ren, which often gets translated as “human-heartedness.” There’s none of that in Lee Pefley. But we need human-heartedness to save the race, not just book learning and a lofty sense of superiority.
Too many of our set are into all that “might is right” crap. They yearn for the re-establishment of “natural hierarchy” – in which they would, but of course, rise to the top (like curdled cream) and lord it over all the taxpayers and sports fans who picked on them in school. Our race needs hierarchy, all right. But not so that those on top can lord it over those below, but rather so that those on top can do the others the kindness of ruling them. That’s what most people truly need, in order to lead happy, healthy, noble lives. And the quality our elite must possess above all else, if it expects to remain the elite, is a sense of noblesse oblige.
Aside from whatever message may be conveyed in Lee, it is a brilliant piece of writing. Mr. Perdue has a real gift for crafting some of the quirkiest metaphors I have ever read, and he can truly tell a tale. Do yourself a kindness and read Lee. You may just find yourself in it – as I did – and find much else as well.