The Last Gentleman is Percy’s most ambitious and overtly philosophical novel, one whose “ideas” take precedence over character, plot, or theme. It is as if Percy’s long years of cogitation about language, humankind, and the cosmos and the alienation evident in American culture suddenly coalesced and compelled him to write a series of interesting, though convoluted, monologues to be placed in the mouths of the brooding searchers populating his narrative. Here the reader finds a compendium of Percy’s personal indictments against crass “Christian America,” modeled on the work of his existentialist mentor, Søren Kierkegaard, in nineteenth century Denmark.
The protagonist in his second novel, Will Barrett, has spent five years in psychoanalysis; he is a native southerner serving as a “humidification engineer” at Macy’s department store in New York City. An introspective, educated man vaguely aware of his own despair, Barrett is “dislocated in the universe.” Percy’s opening description of Barrett succinctly circumscribes his character: “He had to know everything before he could do anything.”
Paralyzed by his commitment to abstract knowledge before making decisions, Barrett lives in a world pervaded by ordinariness. He despairs of clear answers to his nagging questions about the purpose of life—both for himself and others—but he has some dim hopes that his quest will eventually bear fruit. One day, as he contemplates his station in life while at Central Park, he opts to become, as Binx Bolling had in The Moviegoer, an observer and not merely the observed. He spots a beautiful young woman, Kitty Vaught, through his newly purchased telescope and sets out to meet her. Smitten, Barrett traces her to a New York hospital, where he discovers that she and the Vaught family are comforting her younger brother, Jamie,...
(The entire section is 767 words.)