Walker Percy Percy, Walker (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

The trappings of American life would not suffice to fill the "zone of nought"…. (p. 28)

In 1959 Percy melded his views on alienation, intersubjectivity, and authenticity into a strange—and occasionally heavy-handed—meditation-article entitled "The Message in the Bottle." Over the earlier concerns Percy now fitted a theological envelope: the castaway or wayfarer became a name for fallen man. To live authentically, Percy maintained, was to realize that one was a castaway awaiting news of salvation…. (pp. 28-9)

Percy went on to explain that only the castaway who knows his predicament can be a real hearer of news from across the seas. (p. 29)

Percy's thought, evolving via intersubjectivity from alienation to authenticity, finally arrives at salvation. But it is not a general salvation in the sense that it can be freely and individually comprehended; the mere reception of the news is not enough for Percy:

But the message in the bottle is not enough—if the message conveys news and not knowledge sub specie aeternitatis. There must be as Kierkegaard himself saw later, someone who delivers the news and who speaks with authority.

For Percy this authoritarian voice was the Roman Catholic Church. (p. 30)

Percy did not claim directly (at least at first) that Christianity was the news; rather, he postulated the reaction of a skeptical eclectic to the proposition that Christianity might be the news, concluding that the disarmed eclectic would have to concur. In The Moviegoer Percy has set the reader in the position of the skeptical eclectic and subtly disarmed him to the message of Catholicism. The novel is a full illustration of the power of intersubjectivity to lead the wayfarer out of alienation into authenticity and salvation. (pp. 30-1)

The Moviegoer is the journal of [Binx] Bolling's burgeoning awareness of his existence, his turn toward authenticity through intersubjectivity with Kate and with others, and finally his salvation…. (p. 31)

[Binx Bolling] seems to have the best of all worlds. Independent, attractive, perceptive, reasonably affluent, beloved by women and children—how could such a man be alienated, how could such a man be inauthentic? That all the trappings of American life, that all the traditional concepts of role, as sexual partner, successful entrepreneur, family participant, are not nearly enough is, of course, Percy's thesis. That beneath the most harmonious, elegant, suburban happiness there burns the essential gnawing castawayness, the true dread of fallen being, is his theme. (p. 33)

Bolling comes to knowledge of his news from across the seas through intersubjectivity with Kate, with Lonnie, even with Sharon and Stanley Kinchen. The Moviegoer ends with a clear declaration that self is indivisible from others, that knowledge, in Percy's terms, is "an immaterial union" of knower with known. (pp. 33-4)

The Moviegoer seems to have been composed in joy—a muted celebration of Bolling's departure from despair. Written in the first person, shaped with a tranquil irony, The Moviegoer hums with the exhilaration of a man who has argued his way out of darkness. (p. 34)

The vision that pumped The Moviegoer apparently deepened, darkened, and became less clear in The Last Gentleman. The alienated hero, Will Barrett, became clinically ill, and rather than being presented in union with the author, he is examined, almost dissected, in a detached third-person narration. Dark, frustrated forces score in and through the book which is finally taken over by a dark and frustrated character, who, in external circumstance, bears a resemblance to Percy himself: Sutter, a physician, like Percy, no longer practicing, a man experienced, like Percy, in handling entrails and remains…. Significantly, too, the death of a youth—which in both novels stood for the death of youth in the heroes—instead of being almost ancillary, as it is in The Moviegoer, is absolutely central, crucial, and overwhelming in The Last Gentleman. And how the theological presentation that surrounded the death of each youth, Lonnie and Jamie, has changed! The quick, subtle, almost intravenous "When Our Lord raises us up" of The Moviegoer gets a painstaking, brutal exposition in The Last Gentleman.

Children were the conveyors of "the message in the bottle" in The Moviegoer. In The Last Gentleman the bearer of the message (in a turn from archetypal innocence to full institutionalism) is a priest with freckled hands, whose name Percy clearly has selected for a reason, Father Boomer. The childish posturing which surrounded doctrine in The Moviegoer has vanished. Father Boomer in clumsy, deliberately exasperating slowness literally strains the message of Catholicism through Jamie's excrement. (pp. 34-5)

It almost seems as if Percy has taken a backward step, a retreat into intersubjectivity, having found the leap into salvation less than negotiable.

On a perhaps superficial level The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman can be read as if they were like illustrations of Percy's thought—chronicles of the alienated hero coming to grips with the death of his youth and his...

(The entire section is 2821 words.)

John Romano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 figure, has come to doubt that he exists at all as a cogent self having weight and occupying space…. (pp. 1, 28)

[Walker Percy] is a novelist of ideas, which in the case of a very good novelist [such as Percy] does not mean that plot and character are merely pretexts for philosophical investigations. Rather it refers to what is at stake in the outcomes of events that are tracked and lives that are examined. And although his best characters are fully realized and knowable persons, although he has brought great and careful energy to bear upon the study of a particular region of the country at a historically discreet moment, what is at stake in Percy's fiction is not finally personal or local.

Instead, he is testing certain concepts, traditional ones, such as the concept that one person might come to know and love another, and that language might actually assist rather than deter that process; or the concept that a life might be lived in some authentic relation to its own chief events, such as a father's suicide or a marriage, without the need to distort or repress or deny; or the concept that there are impulses, casual and shaping, that lie outside whatever scientific account we can take of ourselves, and that if we bring ourselves to consciousness of such impulses it is possible that we can be delivered, "hoisted," from the trivia and tawdriness that clutter personal existence in daily life—the concept, in short, of God, and the prospects for transcendence, here, now, in America.

I say that he is "testing" these concepts, but there is no pretense, fortunately, of objectivity. He is abundantly committed … to their viability. Nor does it matter, in the end, whether or not the reader is convinced. The demonstrations are compelling and interesting and artful in...

(The entire section is 1342 words.)

Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1114 words.)

John Calvin Batchelor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Mary Gordon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Gerard Reedy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 973 words.)