Percy, Walker (Vol. 18)
Percy, Walker 1916–
Percy is a southern American novelist and essayist, a convert to Roman Catholicism, and a National Book Award winner. The search for individual identity in the post-bellum South and the reconciliation of love with modern moral confusion are abiding themes in Percy's distinguished fiction. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, 8, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, rev. ed.)
John F. Zeugner
The relationship of [Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Marcel, Camus, and Sartre] to Percy's fiction is just beginning to be sorted out. Certainly the sorting-out is crucial, for Percy himself has insisted that the modern writer must be a "passionate propagandist" full of "passionate convictions." He must know who he is and what he stands for—only such knowledge, Percy has contended, provides the foundation for art. (p. 21)
Percy has been obsessed with "intersubjectivity"—a concept which the corpus of Percy's work suggests is the ground of being, the basis of consciousness, the way out of alienation, and a path to salvation.
The term, intersubjectivity, Percy took over from Gabriel Marcel, a French Catholic existentialist for whom Percy has felt a particular affinity. (p. 22)
Beginning with an article published in 1954 and continuing through at least The Moviegoer, published in 1961, Percy delineated with increasing concreteness what Marcel called "that unity which, of course, existed in life before it existed in fiction, and which makes fiction possible." (p. 26)
[Percy expressed the view that] the human entity deprived of intersubjectivity, would live as a "wayfarer" … or castaway in life. He would wander in what Percy called a "zone of nought." He would seek to escape his despair, but only intersubjectivity could bring him to the threshold of consciousness and knowledge....
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In "The Last Gentleman" (1966), Will Barrett was 25 and suffered from attacks of amnesia. Now in "The Second Coming"—his reappearance is one of the meanings of the title—he is near 50 and suffers from attacks of memory. Something is certainly wrong: he is also prone to fall down and black out momentarily. But most chilling are those instants … when every detail of a past time comes flooding back upon him. One such memory returns in installments throughout the first half of the novel, until finally Will has confronted and solved a mystery of his youth: what really happened the day when, hunting together in a pin-oak swamp in Georgia, his father attempted suicide with a hunting rifle, and Will, too, was wounded.
The swamp memory is a bit of dark, woozy, Faulknerian melodrama, a tale of the Old South smuggled into what is in every other way a closely-observed novel of the "New." (p. 1)
Before the attempted suicide, Will's father had made the dire prediction that Will would turn out to be "one of us": that is, one of the doomed and brooding and unbelieving to whom life, ungarnished by illusion, was an affliction and an offense. The prediction nags at Will, but now that he has entered upon his own consideration of suicide, his ultimate concerns turn out to be rather different in tone from his father's. His father's outrage was romantic—Byron ranting on the banks of the Mississippi. Will Barrett, a more temperate...
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My keen admiration for Walker Percy's fiction always has been menaced around the edges by the fact that in each of his books there are at least three or four occasions when his writing tends to drive me up the wall to one distance or another; in the case of his last novel, Lancelot, I stayed up there pretty much throughout.
It isn't that Percy ever writes really badly (though he is susceptible to sporadic attacks of damaging influence from Faulkner) but that at certain times he tends to write distractedly, skitteringly, seeming to lose sight momentarily of what he is supposed to be shaping. If the novel is the most open and accommodating of forms, Percy takes every advantage of that, throwing in chunks of perception or observation regardless of what they do to his narratives or characterizations, indulging, at the expense of cohesion and continuity, his prejudices and crotchets.
Another thing he does, as a function of the foregoing and the largest distraction of all, is to get caught up self-consciously in an obsession which might be called meta-societal. At such times one gets a feeling of being lectured at, hectored, or, worse, ushered into a quirky, boring dream….
What a pleasure it is for me, then, to be able to say that though Percy's new novel, his fifth, is marred in places by lapses of the sorts I've mentioned, it's never seriously endangered by them. The Second Coming seems...
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John Calvin Batchelor
[The Second Coming] is sad, sensual, self-pitying, and unresolved. It fails as a romance, fails as a character novel, fails as a confession, succeeds uncomfortably well as a stoical groan. One winces, and turns away, and then, because its irony dilutes the horror, reads on….
The plot of The Second Coming careens between Allison's endearing, doggerel madness … and Will's grim, crazed, suicidal gambit for a proof of God. One suspects Percy reined in his characters whenever their lively, stubborn self-interest overshadowed his relentless God-talk. Emotional drama shoved aside, Percy opts for melodrama….
Allison is less a character than a philosophical construct—one of Percy's "castaways" on an industrialized, amoral island who secretly combs the beach for sometime-true, sometime-false messages in bottles—so one is not unduly annoyed by the turn that a middle-aged depressive, who is eventually diagnosed as suffering from Hausmann's Syndrome (a pH and brain problem), is repaired of his "inappropriate longings" by his love and lust for a manipulative child who may cure herself with orgasms. Percy has always consistently wedded his characters' metaphysical maladies with corresponding, but no less mysterious, problems in medicine. It's the latent scientist in him who will not accede to the argument that a measured, engineered world has no place for those unquantifiable creatures, angels of the...
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The situation of [Walker Percy's] The Second Coming is not new: the despair of an affluent, white, middle-aged man. But the novel's tone is beautiful in a way that little writing is now—sad and questioning, ironic, weary, and, finally, triumphant. Sadness and emptiness are difficult tones to achieve in fiction, and sometimes Percy bogs down in detail. But the reward of his effort (and the reader's, for it is a difficult book) is a genuine sweetness—mordant, touching, fragile, elusive. (p. 32)
It takes great courage to write a book like The Second Coming nowadays, when the novel of ideas is about as fashionable as cooking with animal fats. The novel's flaws are obvious: The pacing is uneven; it is often talky. And is it unfair to wish that Percy could present—just once—a woman who is not a mental case, a tease, or a religious plug-ugly? But the value of the novel renders these criticisms minor. Wise and funny and improbable, it makes much of recent fiction seem mere sleight of hand. (p. 33)
Mary Gordon, "General Deliverance," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1980 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 29, July 28, 1980, pp. 32-3.
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The Second Coming contains enough plot for three ordinary novels, sufficient themes for a dozen, and enough archetypal symbolism and mythopoeic incident to employ a busy Jungian researcher for a decade.
Though the characters, especially the minor ones, are shrewdly observed and portrayed, they give the impression of having been created less for their own sake—or the story's sake—than for the beliefs, attitudes, and, above all, the follies which they represent. Through them and through Will, Walker Percy is able to have his say on a wide variety of weighty topics: freedom of the will versus neurological or chemical determinism; the Pascalian wager on the existence of God; the deadness (and deadliness) of the modern world; the role of love in communication and teaching; the nature of language, symbolization, and semiotics; the abominable treatment of the elderly and the mad. (p. 40)
Thematic surplus in a novel is arguably preferable to thematic anemia. Great themes, we are told, make great novels. But big themes, especially in long novels, need the momentum of big actions to sweep them triumphantly past the petty diversions produced by raw assertion, argumentation, sectarianism, and the squeaking of over-ridden hobbyhorses. And it is in the mounting and sustaining of action that I find Percy's long, ambitious, multi-directed novels … unsatisfactory. In the case of The Second Coming the story-line...
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Though Walker Percy has always been a critic of how twentieth-century Americans live, and though The Second Coming, his fifth novel, continues this critique, this new work attempts in much greater detail than before to accentuate the positive: to explore, with great imaginative joy, states in which human beings may live together with authenticity. The Second Coming especially harkens back to and develops those scenes in Percy's previous work where authentic, human community occurs: a few conversations between Binx Bolling and Kate Cutrer in The Moviegoer (1961); the fleeting gesture of solidarity between Will Barrett and Sutter Vaught at the end of The Last Gentleman (1966); the epilogue to Love in the Ruins (1971), in which Tom More enjoys a family Christmas; and the mad-house visions of a peaceful life in the Shenandoah Valley of Lance Lamar in Lancelot (1977). The Second Coming continues the troubled life of Will Barrett; it explores and defines a "tertium quid," as Will calls it, between the extremes of suicide and mindless living which American society habitually offers in Percy's novels. (p. 471)
Percy's heroes invariably have to come to terms with the memory of their fathers; generally social misfits, like their sons, these fathers are often depressed individuals and sometimes suicidal. In The Second Coming, Will manages to remember what was hidden from us in The Last...
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