Walker Percy

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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

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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,...

(This entire section contains 2821 words.)

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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 possibility, finding instead an authenticity and salvation…. [One] could interpret Barrett's interpolation of Jamie's "Don't let me go," at the book's conclusion, as yet another celebration of the intersubjectivity which leads to authenticity. The book then might seem summed up by the Guardini epigraph which speaks of the love flowing from one to another. "Don't let me go" becomes in this interpretation the command which binds Barrett to Sutter at the book's end, the command which holds him ready to receive the disillusioned hater of self-actualization and lead him back from suicide to contribution, as well as holds him ready to embrace the illusion-minded Kitty and move her toward the reality of the cognizant castaway.

Barrett's own reality could, in this interpretation, be dependent upon accommodation to the poles of thought represented by Sutter and Kitty. The interpretation is neat. Percy apparently struggled to make it work. But Sutter was too strong, Kitty too weak, Barrett too removed (unlike Bolling) from the center of Percy's concern. Bolling, after all, was no amnesiac. No matter how unusual his perceptions, no matter how different his sensitivities, he was organically sound. By afflicting Barrett with non-spiritual disorders Percy may have been admitting the possibility of dark forces beyond the reticule of convictions he had forged from existentialist philosophy. (pp. 36-7)

Barrett's confession of his own conversion to Marcel's "data," his affirmation that it is better to love and be loved, better to contribute to the world, better to marry and have a family, elicits from Sutter only a peevish story of a fellow who, during a commercial on the Lassie T.V. show, "went outside to the garage and got into the family's second car, a Dodge Dart, and blew the top of his head off."

Peevish satire abounds in The Last Gentleman. Percy particularly wants to identify and annihilate what Martin Luschei calls "the proliferating cliché artist" whose work undermines the authenticity of Percy's own most deeply evolved ideas. Thus Barrett is exposed to phony intersubjectivity by reading Morton Prince's novel, Love, and in-authentic holiness by recalling a drama by the Negro playwright he encounters in the Dew Drop Inn. Yet there is a curiously ambivalent overkill to Percy's excerpts from the novel and the drama. And even more suggestively, the voices of authenticity in The Last Gentleman are themselves tainted. The message of Catholicism is mouthed either by an obviously strange, neurotic woman, Valentine Vaught, who feeds a hawk as she explains doctrine to Barrett, or by a freckled boor of a priest with "American League paws." All this snapping at the core of his own convictions may only be … a very sacred kind of preparatory humor—a laughter close to the religious mode. But a case might be made that it is the thrashing of a man no longer entirely happy with his convictions. The figure of Sutter is so strong that one wonders if Percy has not come to the conclusion Sutter enters in his case book:

Christ should leave us. He is too much with us and I don't like his friends. We have no hope of recovering Christ until Christ leaves us. There is after all something worse than being God-forsaken. It is when God overstays his welcome and takes up with the wrong people.

Sutter seems to acknowledge that the validity of religious belief rests on a social calibration—an assertion Percy, given his Southern aristocratic background, may have found persuasive. (pp. 41-2)

In Marcel's terms Sutter has made the grave error of conceiving of transcendence as pure thought. Such a conception makes a grasp of the transcendent outside of experience, ultimately unattainable. A wallowing in immanence is all that is left. Lewdness becomes all. Marcel insisted, rather, that transcendence was a purer, more saturated form of experience, and thus he escaped the closures of abstraction versus life. Percy understood all of that. Yet he made Sutter fail to understand it. Or perhaps he made Sutter understand it and then reject it. (p. 42)

Dr. Thomas More, the hero of … Love in the Ruins, sits in his father's office, in his father's chair, enjoys his father's habits and patently knows what is what. The search is over and what remains is pasteboard. Ironic derision has weakened into sneer, and the gleam of condescension, always present in Percy's work, has become the sun. For all the arrogant illumination not a visible character is created…. Percy has always been something of a male chauvinist but the centerfold, pull-out women he fashions as foils for Dr. More are remarkably two-dimensional….

The old ambiguities are hoisted out again for the reader, and the problem is still re-entry from the transcendent to the immanent. The terms in Love in the Ruins have changed to angelism and bestialism; the difficulty is to find the sacred human way uniting these poles. The high terrace of abstraction is still the enemy. (p. 44)

Love in the Ruins can be seen as a series of repudiating illustrations of the dangers of the spirit of abstraction implicit in American culture. Percy has strong loathing for the reductionism attendant to what he might call "canned" behaviorism, canned patriotism, canned counter-culturalism. All these isms, these abstractions, leave crucial concrete, individual elements behind. They violate the sovereignty and individuality of human life, as More tries to demonstrate in his various confrontations. Yet in a complicated irony which surely Percy intended, the presentation of those elements that have surrendered to the spirit of abstraction is itself a surrender to abstraction. Percy's stereo-typed characters are in themselves the greatest effacements of the concrete, the greatest abstractions. It is impossible for the reader to find human sovereignty between the angels and the beasts when only angels and beasts are offered to the reader. Is Percy suggesting that the most effective condemnation through art occurs when art becomes that which it condemns?

Whatever Percy's intent, consciousness of the angel-beast problem in Love in the Ruins comes from a mechanical gimmick created by More, his Lapsometer which "gives promise of bridging the dread chasm between body and mind that has sundered the soul of western man for five hundred years." Since, however, the Lapsometer is a diagnostic rather than a corrective device, outside aid is needed; another attachment must be found to repair the fissured soul. The novel provides that attachment in the hands of Art Immelmann, apparently Mephistopheles himself, who in curing the world does irreparable aggravation to the aggressive paranoid features of the American scene circa 1983. Just when the damage seems overwhelming, the sulfurous outpouring of Hell itself belching through the crust of the earth, Percy in a remarkable literary device entitles the final segment "Five Years Later" and in twenty pages explains how, for Dr. More at least, debacle has been avoided.

At the book's conclusion More has achieved what it was he said he wanted at the book's outset—an amalgam of Christ, booze, sex, and, most importantly, the strength to live midway between the angels and the beasts. (pp. 45-6)

Love in the Ruins only appears to be another quest novel, another Pilgrim adventure. Unlike Bolling until the very end of The Moviegoer or Barrett throughout The Last Gentleman, More already knows what is what. He has already found the means by which he may experience the transcendent as a pure, more saturated form of immanence. Catholicism has ended the quest and returned him from the nether regions of angelism or bestialism, as a wanderer cognizant of his state and therefore all the more able to imbibe the wondrous pleasures of the earth…. The thread in the labyrinth, called Catholicism, has enabled More to survive the debacle, even though the forms of Catholicism are rather harshly satirized in the novel…. (p. 47)

More is not a creature in the esthetic mode as Bolling was, nor is he the sick, grappling figure Barrett or Sutter was. Love in the Ruins has moved out of the range of their problems. And the natural extension of intersubjectivity in Marcel's way of seeing things, as Percy noted in a recent interview, is an entry into the political world…. [There] has been an opening of Percy's concern in Love in the Ruins toward the political world. Binx Bolling assuaged his night-mare quest for intersubjective connection by reading Arabia Deserta. Dr. More proceeds to a standard history of the battle of Verdun….

[Percy] is really concerned with what he called the most critical and paradoxical moment in our history—"the crisis is the Negro revolution." And in trying to see clearly a Southern solution to this crisis Percy envisions a broader goal for the South: to save the Union as the North saved the Union in 1860. This sense of Southern mission is rather chic nowadays, but Percy is obsessed with it. (p. 48)

It may be that just as More's Catholicism allowed him to become a mortal man again, so Percy's faith has allowed him to settle back into a traditional Southern Stoic stance. The great problem is that a traditional Southern aristocratic Stoic stance only generates in Percy's usage a sneering petulance toward the contemporary political scene. (pp. 49-50)

The snob in Percy has ever lurked just below the surface and in Love in the Ruins he has only been a more obvious labeler. If readers of The Moviegoer or The Last Gentleman lacked the antennae to fathom what Percy was really saying with his references to Princeton shuffles, hooded Smithie smiles, and Thom McAn shoes, it is all spelled out for them in Love in the Ruins…. Percy … stopped paying any attention to the Catholic message, and the non-attention (either from absorption or rejection) freed him to explore apparently deeper roots of Southern aristocratic condescension. An extraordinary writer, Percy can make even the thin stuff of condescension soar on occasion, but the substance is not there, and if there is a certain intriguing rightness of the book as prophecy—a United States of throwaway cars and snipers and an increasing GNP—the center has not held, a perception Percy makes about the U.S. in general. Percy, the superb ironist, the meticulous cultivator of details, the unfolder of prose hypnotically graceful, has still very much held, but a certain Southern lethargy, perhaps tranquility, pervades the presentation. Maybe what Binx Bolling believed in is necessary: a good kick in the ass. Or maybe Love in the Ruins is not a relapse but only a gathering of strength. (pp. 52-3)

Readers of fiction may have to be content with the hope that Percy's renewed philosophic inquiry will once again trigger a novel as subtle and beguiling as The Moviegoer. (p. 53)

John F. Zeugner, "Walter Percy and Gabriel Marcel: The Castaway and the Wayfarer," in The Mississippi Quarterly (copyright 1975 Mississippi State University), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1974–75, pp. 21-53.

John Romano

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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 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 themselves, and we can't help but be struck by the sense of a powerful relevance in it all….

There is another character besides Will Barrett in "The Second Coming," a parallel character, in whose treatment Percy conveys an excitement beyond the ideational. Allison, 19, has escaped from a mental institution after a series of electroshock treatments, and taken up residence in a deserted greenhouse which she has learned was bequeathed to her by an old aunt. She sets about making the green-house livable with a deliberateness, a tentativeness and an ingenuity that are at once poignant and invigorating.

Here again Percy is a poet, but this time a poet in the design of situations: a rare quality in a novelist whose purposes are so consciously intellectual…. Allison conjures up Huck Finn and Robinson Crusoe and Hester Prynne and others, isolate, outcast homemakers, in flight from a damaging society for which they are yet lonely…. (p. 28)

What happens is that she is befriended, and more than befriended, by Will Barrett…. The story is not probable, but it works to make two effects perfectly heart-rending. One is that Will and Allison undertake to save each other; he falls, she hoists. The other is that the grim soulless world of the Southern suburban haute-bourgeoisie sets itself against their happiness.

I hope I have made it plain that "The Second Coming" is wonderfully good reading. Not only is the satire—on contemporary religious movements, club manners, old people's homes—apt and clever and entertaining, but there are also more powerful pleasures. The scene in which Will Barrett and Allison meet is as well-judged a stretch of prose as I have read in a contemporary novel in years. Significances both beautiful and sturdy swarm in the fact that Will Barrett understands the arcane and convoluted wordplay which Percy has Allison speak—and we are persuaded, all deeply and simply, that this would indeed be so, that their alienation could and would dovetail in just this elegant way. It is, all in all, a hard-won moment of interpersonal transcendence, the discovery in another person of what George Eliot famously called "an equivalent center of self."

My reservations all have to do with the theological burden—under which, I hasten to add, this author has no choice but to labor. It is finally indistinguishable from his art, so that there is no point implying that he would be a better novelist without it. But he can't expect not to provoke disagreement on issues he has succeeded in making palpable. (pp. 28-9)

Allison's solitude and eccentricity erode, a little, the point one would suppose Walker Percy to be making—that we can look for God, or transcendence, or something just like them, in the society we are born to. Her example suggests that we would do better in our search for truth to go off in the woods or put to sea. That is just what we are told to do in many classic American novels; but one had hoped that a writer as socially sensitive and humanistic as Walker Percy might have contrived to relieve the high-principled loneliness of our tradition. However, despite his astute observation of society, he gives it no more real pertinence to the making of self and soul than any of our 19th-century Yankees.

My second reservation is a theological doubt outright. The doubt, excited by Percy's characteristic concerns, is whether a transcendent religious conviction and an ultimate attachment to other people are not finally incompatible. I am not saying this is so, but rather that Percy's fictions are constructed in such a way that this literally awful insight must for an instant glimmer—but that he then does not fully take responsibility for it. If it is a doubt he himself has had, he has not yet wrestled with it publicly. Allison, a remarkable creation in every other respect, is in this one sense a species of evasion: she is too much the fairy wood nymph, the holy idiot and sainted outsider to answer our questions about Percy's ultimate commitment to common humanity.

Nevertheless, "The Second Coming" is, among recent novels, masterly and superior. It is a more consistent and more centered work than "The Last Gentleman"—I believe it is Walker Percy's best since "The Moviegoer." The contemporary audience, given its apparent mood, can hardly be expected to welcome a novel of ideas, even such a splendid, engrossing one as this; but it would be most regrettable if large numbers of readers did not avail themselves of the complex but certain joy that Walker Percy confers here. (p. 29)

John Romano, "A Novel of Powerful Treasures," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 29, 1980, pp. 1, 28-9.

Richard Gilman

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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 to me his best book since The Moviegoer and among the most admirable American novels of the past few years. In its pages the mists do descend from time to time, but they lift quickly and then the writing once again becomes shrewd, lovely, wholly original. What's more, one can see clearly in this book what was to be suspected all along: that in a more intricate way perhaps than for any other American novelist Percy's defects are indeed the excesses or temporary miscalculations of his virtues. (p. 29)

Under the unresolved pressure of the past, [Will Barrett, the novel's protagonist] contemplates shooting himself…. Together with [his] private malaise is Barrett's sense of a related public one, and it is one of Percy's constant themes. People are generous, they seem content, but everyone is pitched to one extreme and disastrous side or other of what should be the ruling question, that of belief in something other than the self. "People either believe everything or they believe nothing," Barrett muses. For the believers the result is foolishness, gloom, either cold or hysterical churches of every official or invented kind; for the unbelievers it's madness….

Barrett becomes convinced that behind both arid belief and a lunatic unbelief lies a perverse craving for death. "The name of this century is the Century of the Love of Death," he proclaims at one point, but the perception helps him fight the infatuation in himself. In line with this, when he discovers that his father had intended to kill him and then commit suicide (he later did succeed in killing himself) he feels under a curse but the recognition helps steel him to go on….

Now the whole story of the father is unconvincing psychologically … for nothing is advanced as a motive for his suicide but the quasi-mystical death-love notion, while his attempt to kill young Barrett is explained only as a wish to spare him a life which will lead to death in any case. Stylistically, as one might expect, the sections that deal directly with these matters are precisely where Percy is weakest, where he seems most derivative of Faulkner … and, more important, where he succumbs most readily to his perennial temptation toward apocalyptic vision, barely communicable in any of his books and, as before in his work, couched in strained, hard-breathing rhetoric….

What Percy does here is to hypostatize death, make it into a rhetorical flourish and means of aggression, and this seems to me a literary vice because it's the offering of an a priori—all those fixed connotations, the word assuming that we know exactly what it signifies and will react accordingly—instead of a working out. Still, if I suffered through these passages and others like them, I remained patient for the sake of all the good, sometimes superlative, writing that surrounds them….

The best writing of all concerns the girl, Allie, in the sequences where she is the major or only character and in those, which make up a good part of the last third of the book, where she and Barrett are together. She is surely Percy's finest female creation and among the best of all. It's a dangerous strategy, making her cut off and a type of dropout, the victim of shock therapy and partial amnesia; the risks of sentimentality are high, together with those of fashionable counter-culturish typology. But Percy beautifully brings it off. (p. 30)

[The] relationship [between Will and Allie] develops swiftly but subtly. She is Barrett's way back to life, while he is the confirmer of her secret strength. They are each other's opportunity. The sequences in the book when they are together are enormously affecting, funny, exhilarating, full of surprise. I don't know of any depiction of sexual love in recent American fiction that surpasses this for simplicity, painful but liberating truthfulness, splendor, and depth of feeling….

I spoke before of Percy's vices being the costs of his virtues. What I came to see as I read his new book was that one had to be willing to grant him his excesses and even follies. The point isn't that he could somehow learn to give them up, to write more acceptably; he writes as he does and can, and if in order to emerge into the clear tonic air of revelation he has to go through much murk and absurdity, so it must be. Like any novelist he needs plot to frame and impel his sense of things, and because this sense is rarer and more elusive than that of most writers, an awareness of eternity mocked by the here and now yet sustaining it, a religious sense without explicit creed or dogma, his plots have to reach further than most and are subject to afflictions as they go.

I'll therefore amend what I said before: that I simply endured the inferior elements for the sake of the good. What I did was take them up together, knowing I couldn't really separate them, grumbling, exasperated at times, but full, in the end, of praise. (p. 31)

Richard Gilman, "Books and the Arts: 'The Second Coming'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, Nos. 1 & 2, July 5 & 12, 1980, pp. 29-31.

John Calvin Batchelor

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[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 Lord.

One is more irritated by Percy's indifference to the life of and lives in his novel…. The Second Coming, like The Last Gentleman, is stuffed with characters who deserve attention, judgement, rescue, but Percy will not do it. For untold reasons—and one cannot accept the suggestion that a man this talented lacks the will—Percy will not deliver a Dostoevskian novel of the New South.

Percy refuses a rigorous resolution for The Second Coming, providing instead, and arguably necessarily, a low-key, sentimental finish, as in Love In the Ruins, overloading it with tangential good works and wry puzzles. Percy sidesteps Will Barrett's neat proposition: If these are the Last Days, how should one act? There is the intriguing inference that those waiting for the end should cleave to an affair of the heart and remain humble, hopeful, brisk. But Percy is oddly ambiguous as to how sincere he is about recommending love before the ruins.

Structurally, The Second Coming lacks a beginning (unless The Last Gentleman so serves) as well as an ending, and the result is a novel that is heavily philosophical and pinched—all middle. This middle, if read for its reproach, sorrow, frustration, is too powerful stuff, too heart-breaking, and freezing, for gray days and dark thinkers. Yet, once drawn into the laconic, remorseful dynamic of Percy's work, one craves more, and sterner, and darker. Percy might not want to deliver such, of course, because if he were to shed his stoic's mantle of irony he might himself have no defense from, and not enough tears for, the truths he might find in the figurative bottle on the figurative beach. A character of his once said, however, that the trying is the victory, and one selfishly urges Percy to pursue his obsession to a conclusion, whatever the risk of ruin and blasphemy, that he blanches from in this brave, mortal book.

John Calvin Batchelor, "The Percy Perplex," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 28, July 9-15, 1980, p. 34.

Mary Gordon

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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.

Robert Towers

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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 wavers between a realistic ordering of events and the contrivances of allegorical romance. Too often the incidents, like the characters, seem to result from the author's impassioned need to illustrate a point. A reader unable (like myself) to give intellectual assent to the Christianized existentialism at the novel's center must be enticed by the charm and power of the dramatic action into granting imaginative assent; and that granting, in my case, failed to occur. Only the Allison story provided sufficient enchantment for me to cease worrying about its psychological (and spiritual) credibility. And at the novel's ending I found myself withholding even the credence one gives to a well-wrought fairy tale.

This faltering between modes, this clash of mixed intentions, is reflected also in the unevenness of the novel's prose…. Percy is a powerful and convincing writer, capable of recording phenomena with sensuous exactitude, of creating movement and suspense. But when he turns sententious, he is likely to indulge in sheer rant, often phrased in up-to-the-minute colloquialisms that ill become the seriousness of his intentions; it is then that he reminds me of a hippie-clergyman (a type that Percy surely deplores) attempting to "level" with his congregation. And when he waxes eloquent, the result can be positively Faulknerian in its turgidity. (pp. 40-1)

The jangle of multiple voices, not all of them well conceived, contributes to the somewhat amateurish quality which I find disturbing in the novel.

But if The Second Coming is flawed, as it seems to me, in its aesthetic and formal dimensions, the book is in almost every way an improvement over its immediate predecessors: more coherent than The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins … and less stridently pretentious than the fake-Gothic Lancelot…. It is a work full of sharp, quirky perceptions, vividly achieved small scenes, and one extended fable—the Allison-in-the-greenhouse fable—that continues to flourish magically when the book is closed. (p. 41)

Robert Towers, "To the Greenhouse," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 13, August 14, 1980, pp. 39-41.

Gerard Reedy

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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 Gentleman: that his father attempted to kill his twelve-year-old son and himself several years before a second attempt on his own life was successful…. Percy's use of psychiatric models of behavior is always interesting. Will's acts of remembering recall the structure of psychoanalysis; it is only when he recovers the memory of what his father had tried to do that he is free to act. Yet Percy's principals must always pass beyond the various clinical helps offered to them—in this novel, therapy, shock treatments, and pills—for living in the future…. In Percy, salvation only occurs with the advent of the other, the right person, the friend or lover, whose subjectivity is eternally and irreducibly hostile to empirical analysis. However clinically ill the subjects who relate to one another may be, intersubjectivity is the purpose of their existence. An unabashed, tendentious romantic, Percy also has the great ability to construct scenes, especially in this novel, where intersubjectivity becomes so real it hurts.

From the notebooks of Sutter Vaught in The Last Gentleman on into the present work, Walker Percy has been reluctant to understand his action and characters in anything less than a fully theological background. Will and Allie recapitulate, in their choice of words and tools, the history of culture; in his religious development, Will progresses from the mentality of a cranky Old Testament prophet, who rejects the world, to a hesitant awareness, given to him only on the last page of the novel, of God's incarnational presence in the world. Will initially seeks his "tertium quid" by retreating to a cave to await a "sign" from God; if God exists, he will appear to save him from death by starvation. This demand for empirical proof parallels, on the religious level, the scientific reductionism that recurs in the novels and that is a major theme of Percy's collected essays, The Message in the Bottle (1975). A toothache eventually drives Will from the cave and into Allie's arms. God gives his "sign" in and through the comedy of the human body; he will not give it in response to abstract demands placed upon him—a human strategy called "angelism" in Love in the Ruins—and Will, in spite of himself, is saved…. Read as a whole, the five novels present their own sign of contradiction; the reader who does not believe in the "simple silly holy" body—"holy" because God has been there—must be puzzled indeed by the way Percy rescues a few characters from the nonsense going on around them.

The reader of The Second Coming who expects rowdy social criticism will not be disappointed. Percy's satirical targets here include: old-age homes, overeating, makers of pornographic films, born-again Christians, belief in reincarnation, a priest in a jump suit who feels "uneasy" talking about religion, ecumenism, astrology, and California, where "everyone believed everything," and which has apparently replaced Ohio as the object of Percy's special disfavor. No redemption is offered to these many social and religious realities, as it is to Will and Allie…. Sometimes Will's thoughts make for difficult reading; for most of us, it is the interspersed social satire, thematically integrated or not, which relieves the strain of the ongoing personal drama. (pp. 471-72)

For me, the novel lacks the purity and simplicity of The Moviegoer and the richly theological development of Love in the Ruins. Some of the structural difficulties of The Last Gentleman recur…. On the other hand, Percy integrates his philosophical interest in language more successfully here than he has been able to do before; Allie's re-creation of the world through language is stunning in conception and execution. Certain residual ambiguities in the characters of Will and Kitty and Sutter Vaught are nicely cleared up; also, we get a humane explanation at last why so many Percy heroes prefer war to peace ("thinking of peace during war is better than peace"). Like all of Percy's novels, The Second Coming is a challenging work; like other Percy heroes, Will is slightly mad, and, once again, it is occasionally difficult to see where the author's irony begins and ends. The major change The Second Coming rings on the previous novels lies in its greater exploration of the peaceful, romantic images that have always been present in Percy's work and are here amplified to challenge, if not drown out, the discord of twentieth-century America. (p. 472)

Gerard Reedy, "Gestures of Solidarity," in Commonweal (copyright © 1980 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVII, No. 15, August 29, 1980, pp. 471-72.


Percy, Walker (Vol. 14)


Percy, Walker (Vol. 2)