(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Second Coming is a seriocomic tale in which a wealthy, middle-aged man who is contemplating suicide and a young woman who has recently escaped from a mental hospital save each other from depression and psychosis and win their freedom from conniving relatives. It is not the usual kind of love story, in which the primary conflict is some obstacle in a romantic pursuit. Each is engrossed in a very private struggle with the crippling emotions peculiar to his or her own past. Their encounter is a happy accident—or perhaps the grace of God extended to two social misfits who cannot make it alone.

Will Barrett seems to have everything: money, social position, friends, early retirement, and a good golf game. In abstract, metaphysical terms, his main adversary is the meaninglessness of his life, even though he and his late wife had been much involved in “good works.” The more immediate antagonist, however, is his skeptical father, who shot himself when Will was a boy and intimated that someday his son would follow his example. Much of Will’s mental life is spent recapturing in minute detail the reality of his relationship to his father and his legacy of death. Therefore, much of the action, though comical in itself and infused with satiric observations about American, especially Southern, society, still has a somber undertone of self-analysis.

Allison Huger’s problem is also psychological, though its sources in the past are not so clear. While Will suffers from obsessive memories, Allie struggles from extreme withdrawal and forgetfulness, the latter exacerbated by repeated electroshock treatments. She manages, nevertheless, to escape the sanatorium and take possession of an abandoned greenhouse, which she inherited from an aunt. Her intention is to prove that she can survive in the world without the help of the...

(The entire section is 755 words.)

The Second Coming Overview

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Walker Percy told the first part of the story of Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman (1966) and continues it in The Second Coming. In this novel, something is wrong with Will Barrett, a retired Wall Street lawyer in his mid-forties. His golf game, usually excellent, is suffering; he keeps falling down; he is obsessed with the movement of the Jews, which he interprets as a possible sign; and he is haunted by long-suppressed memories. Will has returned to the Carolina mountains where he grew up and is consumed with thoughts of suicide. His wife, Marion, a disabled, fat Christian philanthropist, has been dead less than a year, and his born-again daughter, Leslie, is getting married in a few weeks. Will cannot find solace in either woman’s faith. He finds no help in Jack Curl, the chaplain who runs the nursing home funded by the Barretts, or in Lewis Peckham, his atheist friend.

Will considers the extent of his deceased father’s legacy: two guns and a lust for suicide. Will recalls what was referred to as the “hunting accident” in his family and realizes that on that day, his father not only attempted suicide but also attempted homicide. Ed Barrett, tortured by living a “death-in-life” and believing he was bequeathing it to his son, tried to end it for both of them. He failed at both that day but did manage to kill himself not long after (Percy’s own father committed suicide). Will decides to devise a test that will solve his problem. He dispatches the proper letters to cover his tracks however the experiment works out, then climbs into a cave in the Carolina mountains and waits. Will believes that if there is a God, he will receive a sign that will allow him to live renewed; if not, there will be no sign and he will die.

Meanwhile, Allison Huger, a young adult, finds herself on a bench. She cannot remember who she is or how she got there. In her hand she holds a notebook in which she has apparently written some notes to herself. She discovers that she has spent the last few years of her life in a mental institution her parents committed her to. She does not think, communicate, or interact the way others do, and her parents feel she can never live completely on her...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

The Second Coming Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Will Barrett of The Last Gentleman returns in this sequel as a wealthy middle-aged man, recently widowed, suffering both from inexplicable blackouts in which he loses consciousness and from his faltering sense of a calling in life. Also resurrected are Sutter Vaught, whom Will counseled out of suicide, and Sutter’s sister Kitty, whom Will once courted. The three are brought together again in a most unusual circumstance as Will encounters Kitty’s purportedly schizophrenic daughter, Allison, during a “scientific experiment” to determine whether God exists.

Worn down by the affluence and religiosity—particularly his own daughter’s rigid fundamentalism—that surrounds him in southern suburbia in Linwood, North Carolina, Will Barrett is convinced that the only question left for him to answer about humankind is whether life has any transcendent meaning—that is, whether God exists. His wife, when alive, had heavily invested herself and her family fortune in “do-gooding.” Will spends his days, when well, playing golf and more golf and obsessively recovering the lurid details of his relationship with his father, who committed suicide.

In his emptiness, Will makes a vow of ending his life if he cannot ascertain there is a God who exists—and cares. He vouchsafes his “experiment’s” details and its consequences in a letter to Sutter Vaught. Will’s plan is implausible yet inspired: He will hide in a nearby cave and fast...

(The entire section is 494 words.)