The Second Coming
In this, his fifth novel, Walker Percy again explores the concerns which pervade his earlier books, concerns which readers recognize with surprise and delight as their own unarticulated questions: Why do we feel so devalued at four o’clock in the afternoon? Why is life not worth living except in the face of crisis or imminent death? Why do we love war better than peace, illness better than health? Are we creatures of free will, or aggregates of chemical reactions? Why can we abide neither believers nor unbelievers, and what has God to do with all of this?
Engrossing and refreshing on its many levels, The Second Coming stands among the best of contemporary literature. As do his other novels, except perhaps Lancelot, this work exhibits Percy’s shrewd sense of comedy, descriptive skill, poignant concern for those who suffer, unshakable deference to human dignity, and extensive theological and philosophical learning.
The protagonist is once again Williston Bibb Barrett, who was the young “engineer” of Percy’s second novel, The Last Gentleman. Now middle-aged, he still has the courteous and amiable ways of the well-born Southerner, is still attractive and likable, if somewhat remote. In the intervening years, he has had a successful Wall Street law practice and has been married to a “good cheerful forthright Northern Episcopal Christian” wife, inheriting her millions upon her recent death. He has taken early retirement in Linwood, North Carolina, a pleasant mountain resort not far from Asheville, and spends his time playing golf and looking after his late wife’s philanthropies.
Despite the prospect of spending many comfortable years in prosperity and quiet civilized pastimes, Will is suffering from the symptoms of a disorder. He develops a golf slice. He falls down, usually on the golf course. He has delusions that all the Jews are leaving North Carolina. He begins to remember episodes from his past with such clarity that he is transported in time and place. He remembers everything. He becomes preoccupied with death, and with suicide.
His problem, as Will diagnoses it, is that “a person nowadays is two percent of himself.” He asks whether it is possible for people to miss their lives in the same way as one misses a plane. He sees the times as demented and farcical:The Jews are gone, the blacks are leaving, and where are we? deep in the woods, socking little balls around the mountains, rattling ice in Tanqueray, riding $35,000 German cars, watching Billy Graham and the Steelers and M*A*S*H on 45-inch Jap TV.
Will’s recognition of his state of death-in-life is not shared by those around him, although with the clarity of vision brought on by his disorder, he sees that they too are beside themselves. Jack Curl, his late wife’s confessor and the chaplain of the nursing home her money has built, professes himself less interested in the signs of the apocalypse than in “opening a serious dialogue with our Catholic and Jewish friends.” Jack wears a jumpsuit, dressed as God’s handyman, but is afraid to talk about faith. What he offers Will, instead, is an ecumenical retreat, where he is to be “double-teamed with a Roman Catholic priest from Brooklyn, a real character,” where the food is first class but “the important thing’s it’s a weekend with God. That’s the bottom line.” Will’s grown daughter Leslie, a dissatisfied girl with a permanent frown, is a born-again Christian intent on writing her own wedding liturgy, the readings to come from the Bible and The Prophet. She has no use for anything that gets in the way of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, and moves with her new husband into a love-and-faith community. Will’s former girl friend, Katherine Vaught, Kitty of The Last Gentleman, has grown from an innocent Alabama girl dressed in cotton skirts into a bold, lusty too-tan lady golfer with a whisky voice and a loud bigoted husband. To her, Will’s fear-and-trembling is “Tension! That’s the enemy... . You know what I do? Stretch out and tell my toes to relax, then my knees—they do it!”
Those around him who are not beside themselves, nevertheless, hold no answers for Will. His whole marriage with his late wife Marion was a “communication breakdown.” Marion, with her Episcopalian orthodoxy and sense of obligation, grew fat and crippled after the marriage, and gave herself to a life of service:She took to a wheelchair, ate more than ever, did more good works. She spent herself for the poor and old and wretched of North Carolina. She was one of the good triumphant Yankees who helped out the poor old South. In and out of meetings flew her wheelchair, her arms burly as a laborer’s. Fueled by holy energy, money, and brisk good cheer, she spun past slack-jawed Southerners, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, paid the workers in her mills a living wage, the very lintheads her piratical Yankee father had despoiled and gotten rich on: a mystery.
Will’s sharpened memory and his preoccupation with death lead him into conversations with the memory of his father, a Faulknerian figure, whom he addresses as “old mole.” Recognizing that his father’s suicide was intended to be as large a gesture as all his father’s deeds, and that Will’s own lukewarm life was lived to escape that largeness, he rages:And I was never so glad of anything as I was to get away from your doom and your death-dealing and your great honor and great hunts and great hates... , yes, your great allegiance swearing and your old stories of great deeds ... and under it all the death-dealing which nearly killed me and did you.
In a series of flashbacks, Will pieces together every moment of a hunting trip he, as a boy of twelve, took with his father. The trip left both man and boy injured of shotgun blasts, and when Will finally remembers what happened that day, and what his father was trying to teach him, he knows that the hunt was the only event that ever happened to him in his life. “Everything else that happened afterward was a non-event.”
Will is freed by his recognition that he was meant to die on that hunt, and vows that his suicide will not...
(The entire section is 2538 words.)