Home/Rod Dreher/‘True Detective’: Walker Percy Noir

‘True Detective’: Walker Percy Noir

Over the weekend, Julie and I watched the pilot episode of True Detective, the gritty Louisiana serial drama starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two state police investigators who fall apart investigating an occult murder in a sugarcane field; it turns out to be a hunt for a serial killer. The show completed its first-season run, and is not on iTunes. I asked my Twitter followers if we should stick with it. The show is about staring into the abyss. I have no desire to spend too much time staring into the abyss, because I’m afraid it will stare back, as it once did. But McConaughey’s grim, philosophically inclined character, and his mesmerizing performance, intrigued me. (And I was not put off by the fact that nobody in this show’s Cajun Louisiana, at least in the first episode, speaks with a Cajun accent.) I saw enough of the show to conclude that it doesn’t look like it’s going to be bleak to no purpose. But who knows? I didn’t want to commit to it if all the show would do would be to descend into stylized nihilism, like Mad Men, with which I eventually grew bored.

A Twitter follower put me on to this post by Catholic blogger Paul Schumann, in which he says that if Walker Percy had written crime noir for television, True Detective is the kind of thing he would have written. I am going to post below as much of the review that I read; I stopped because I could see spoilers coming. This was enough to convince me to stick with the show:

Walker Percy enthusiasts have wondered when one of his novels would find its way to Hollywood. I am convinced the famed Southern Catholic author has already made his mark — but not in the way one might expect. The HBO series True Detective is an explicit and crude show at times that nonetheless is how I picture Walker Percy crime noir.

An obvious theme of True Detective is existentialism, most keenly felt by the audience through the monologues of Detective Rust Cohle and in a more blunt fashion through the experiences of Detective Martin Hart. Rust scoffs at belief in God but cannot make sense of life once he’s written off the Creator. It’s all seemingly pointless, a feeling accentuated by the personal tragedy of losing his young daughter in a car accident. His intense self-analysis is similar to that of another Percy character, Will Barrett, in The Last Gentleman.

Martin is an alcoholic womanizing Christian family man. Maggie Hart describes her detective husband as someone who “didn’t know who he was, so he didn’t know what he wanted.” This effectively sums up a typical problem of the Walker Percy character, especially The Moviegoer‘s Binx Bolling. The ennui of this Louisiana stockbroker persists no matter how many women he pursues or films he sees at the cinema. Martin Hart’s internal conflict continues, despite his seemingly stable job and family life. His is an unexamined life, marked by constantly following animal lust and an urge to drunkenness. His Christianity is the type suspicious of philosophy, theology, and science — preferring instead the brief emotional highs of the travelling preacher. It makes him feel good just as indulging in whiskey and women to bring him pleasure. It causes him no opportunity for self-reflection or, more critically, no examination of conscience. It may be just this sort of Christianity that another Southern Catholic author, Flannery O’Connor, believed to populate the “Christ-haunted South.”

If you’ve already seen True Detective‘s first season, read on. If not, and you’re interested in doing so. don’t click the link.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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