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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Lancelot is made up of the ramblings of a madman in search of evil. Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, a cuckolded husband who has slit the throat of his wife’s lover and blown up his Belle Isle plantation home with his wife inside, narrates Walker Percy’s fourth novel from a “nuthouse.”

Similar to his three earlier novels, The Moviegoer (1960), The Last Gentleman (1966), and Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot is packed with philosophical and theological questions, questions debated in his essay collection Message in the Bottle (1975). Lancelot is another of Percy’s alienated characters who has lost himself to everydayness, sex, consumerism, newspapers, and television. He is jolted out of his alienation only by catastrophe: his wife has been unfaithful—his daughter is not his. Percy, a Christian novelist, uses violence, shock, and the bizarre as a catalyst to promote a self-directed search. Lancelot, like the characters in Percy’s earlier novels, undertakes the search only after catastrophe occurs.

In a series of fragmented flashbacks, Lancelot, failed lawyer, ex-grid star, Rhodes scholar, and madman, travels through his memory in an attempt to discover what went wrong. He relives the past, while rambling in a monologue to a silent priest who acts as a sounding board, from the Institute of Aberrant Behavior where he has been confined since the Belle Isle fire and murder.

The search begins, as in Percy’s earlier novels, by confronting the haunted past, because only by understanding the past can Lance contemplate the future. In doing so he must, as Percy has suggested in his philosophical essays, “stand in front of the house of his childhood in order to recover himself.” Once there Lance discovers his father was a crook. He must then not only become aware of sin, of evil, but he must also see it and experience it. What he sees is his wife committing adultery, his daughter participating in an orgy, and his son admitting his homosexuality. The issue is twofold: first Lancelot must see his wife’s unfaithfulness; then in his quest for sin, he must experience evil—he must kill. While searching for evil, he discovers that “sexual sin was the unholy grail I sought.” Because his wife’s unfaithfulness jolts him out of his ordinary existence, he questions whether “good can come from evil,” and he undertakes a search “not for God but for evil.” “Dishonor,” Lancelot learns in this first-person narration, “is sweeter and more mysterious than honor. It holds a secret,” and he is determined to discover the secret.

So, the protagonist experiences evil and discovers despair. But for Percy, a follower of Kierkegaardian philosophy, despair is a stage toward hope. Lancelot despairs of the modern world, “The great whoredom and fagdom of America.” But he visualizes a new life, a new order of things; “there will be a tight-lipped courtesy between men. And chivalry toward women. Women must be saved from the whoredom they have chosen.” His new life, as he visualizes it, involves a retreat to “a cabin and a barn and fifty acres in the Blue Ridge not far from Lexington, Virginia.” Joining him, he assumes, will be Anna, a victim of gang rape, who along with Lance is a patient in the institute. Lance links his future to Anna’s.

Percy, termed a stylist by many, has progressed in his style; the monologue device spans the novel. Yet he takes this novel one step further than Love in the Ruins, where the main character awaits the end of the world. Here Lancelot ends the modern world for himself and plans to start a new one. Again, as in his earlier novels, Percy reverses the traditional ways of making do in the modern world. Average happiness is conceived as despair, sin is better than indifference, forgetting better than remembering, wonder better than certainty, tragedy better than an ordinary day, and madness better than sanity.

The new novel, with Lancelot rambling to a priest in confessional fashion, breaks from Percy’s previous...

(The entire section is 1,140 words.)