Percy in Paradise by Ray Staszko
Review by Paul Xylinides
An Eloquent and Subversive Crie de Coeur
If anyone has ever encountered the ecstatic look in the eyes of some street people, Percy in Paradise goes a long way to explaining it. Unbeknownst to many in society, there are those who choose this “down-and-out” life because they simply cannot stomach the alternative. And yet there is an inescapable irony to these paradisal states as Percy, the protagonist in Ray Staszko’s eloquently subversive novel, shows aplenty. His ability to commune directly with the creatures of the natural world transports him and yet he cannot ignore the death-dealing imperatives of their existence:
“Everything was always killing everything else, and although he felt compelled to do so, sometimes Percy wondered if spending so much time and energy in this so-called “natural” world was really any better than being caught up in the depressing realities of the human world.”
Percy lives on the streets with the sole purpose of giving aid and succour to whatever man or beast may be in need of it. While unremittingly contemptuous of society, he governs his life in response to its victims and to those of Creation itself as these appear to him. Although he finds great relief and reward in his capacity to commune with and, eventually, participate in the lives of the birds and animals that so mesmerize him, he remains clear-eyed as to their existential conditions and scornful of any Creator who would be responsible for this kill-or-be-killed system.
Disgruntled and at times embittered by his dealings with the world, Percy has trouble crediting the positively substantial states of being that are his as he focuses all of himself on appreciating and preserving life itself.
“[T]hree emotions … were an appropriate response to any good hard look at reality … fear, anger, and sadness … sadness was [his] nirvana, the state up to which he tried to climb and in which he tried to remain as long as possible.”
Percy in Paradise is a cri de coeur. Staszko’s hero is not after anything otherworldly in terms of reward. His sole recompense lies in the alleviation of the needs about him. It is nothing less than charming that his good deeds have so profound an influence upon the realization of his fullest spiritual and empathic powers while, all along, his philosophy not only recognizes its limits but also strongly suggests its potential:
“[T]he best one could do was always good enough.”
Percy doesn’t ask more of anyone than what they can deliver but most of society often does not. Communing intimately with the natural world including the long-suffering females of the human species, he generously donates all to relieve the suffering of others leaving for himself no more than what he requires for his own basic survival.
As for any metaphysical solace that looks to be coming his way, the only bliss Percy is willing to trust begins right here on the earthly plane. His is an equal opportunity saintliness that only now later in his life seeks to withdraw from granting his apparently highly skilled and sensitive sexual attention to the ill-used females he encounters, some of them returning gratefully to him for more of his particular brand of therapy. He is able to deduce and portray to himself the most detailed characteristics of anatomy in the most ordinary of ladies – an original means for character presentation that adds yet another facet to his persona. One persistent female devotee whom he convinces to protect herself with a lanyard during her prescribed sexual manoeuvres finally launches herself off her apartment balcony in order to pleasure herself to more extreme effect.
The path that he has chosen for himself has made him either receptive to or a candidate for the appearance of Jesus in his daily life. To put it another way, Jesus sees him as a sufficiently worthwhile human being to merit some visits although with the purpose of soliciting Percy’s further help in His own as yet not fully realized goals for the Christian enterprise. The down-to-earth and credibly uncertain Jesus, when He finally makes His appearance, fits seamlessly into the hazards and hardships of Percy’s circumstance and neatly accords with his irreverent voice. The comeuppance that Percy delivers to Him is one of the great and triumphant ironies in the story.
Percy in Paradise is a work that deserves to be regarded as a classic of its kind. Over time, Romance has fallen into much disrepute devolving as it has into a specific writing genre for the love-challenged, but Staszko’s novel belongs there in the traditional Shakespearean sense of the term, for it contains all of its elements as found in the Bard’s final works wherein a combination of comedy and tragedy ultimately arrives at a literary claim of transcendence.
Percy never says it but it would be impossible for him not to conclude that if his liberation from this mortal coil is real then the same is possible for the rest of creation whose cruelty and suffering so sadden him. In the end he is freed to bring other than material aid. His character’s great achievement is that he convinces the reader of the very real truth that man’s transcendent capacities flow from the everyday choices he makes and the awareness he maintains in his daily doings.