Thursday, September 13, 2007

Third Take on Second Coming by Walker Percy

(reflection on Walker Percy's THE SECOND COMING, New York: Picador, 1999. )
When I graduated from college and started teaching in Mississippi at an Episcopal school, in 1981, it seemed to me that everyone I knew was around 45 years old and much enamored of Walker Percy. His father W. Alexander Percy was a beloved author of Mississippi, and Walker was a celebrity in New Orleans, a city that Mississippians seemed to adopt as their own. On top of all that, he was a convert to Roman Catholicism from atheism and thus very attractive to all my Episcopalian friends. He'd had several bestsellers and prize -winners around that time, such as THE LAST GENTLEMAN, LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, and LANCELOT. I enjoyed THE MOVIEGOER, his first novel, and experienced what he describes in that book -- a kind of alienation from our own lives as we compare actual places with their equivalents in the media -- when I found my first experience of New Orleans being mediated by his descriptions. I read his non-fiction about human language's qualitative difference from any animal communication (MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE).

Percy's best-seller at the time was THE SECOND COMING, and I bought it eagerly. Two or even three times I tried to get through it, but bogged down around the third chapter. Recently, I returned to it, determined to finish it. I've succeeded, and here's my report, 27 years late.

There are two threads to the plot. We see middle aged widower Will Barrett in a crisis. His symptoms include sudden blackouts, emotional detachment, and obsession with the idea that current (1979) trends show Jews heading for the Holy Land: a sign of the End Times. Two memories haunt him: the hunting expedition with his father who botched an attempt to kill his son and then himself, and a teenaged encounter with a beautiful girl. He plays golf and socializes with a pretty unpleasant group of golfing friends.

That beautiful girl is a connection to the other strand of the story, grown up and doing everything that money can buy to keep her deranged daughter safely out of her life. That daughter, Allison, follows a detailed set of instructions written to her by herself, just prior to electroshock therapy, telling her how to escape from the asylum while doctors presume her to be too disoriented to need minding. She finds shelter in an abandoned estate's decrepit greenhouse, close to the the golf course where Will Barrett plays.

Naturally, the two meet, and, not coincidentally, both are heirs to a great deal of money. That's the plot, and things click satisfyingly into place at the end.

Once again, I almost put the book down. The problem is that Barrett is tedious, as his creator (Percy, not God) plays him two ways, both as a deluded man to be mocked for his paranoia, and as a wise fool whose bemusement at the foibles of life in the USA, ca. 1979, echoes Percy's own in his non-fiction. Sometimes, Percy doesn't even seem to be trying to disguise that his character is only a mannequin to dress up, as when he asks, "What to make, reader, of a rich middle-aged American sitting in a German car, holding a German pistol with which he will in all probability blow out his brains, smiling to himself and looking around old Carolina for the Jews whom he imagined had all disappeared? (134)" Barrett is most tedious in a far-fetched scheme to prove once for all if God is real. I could take that, but his rambling letter about it nearly kills the novel. The energy is sucked out of the narrative by something that he identifies early in the novel as "the great suck of self (14)."

The most real and lively parts of the novel are the ones that focus on real and specific details, when Percy lets us follow the thoughts of the main characters as they solve problems. Both Will and Allison are pretty lethargic and detached, but they (and Percy's book) come to life when they have some specific problem to solve, such as how to move a heavy stove or how to engineer an escape from a mental institution. Allison is funny as she applies this same kind of mechanical problem-solving to her growing feelings of love for Barrett (239-240).

At one point, I thought that the gist of the book might be the one expressed, tongue-in-cheek, by Voltaire in CANDIDE: the only real happiness in life is "to make our garden grow."

What ideas does Percy want to convey? He often writes of people living comfortable and evidently good lives who are somehow unhappy. I was reminded of 9/11/2001 in this book from twenty years earlier, when a sniper fires on Barrett and he suddenly springs to life, once aware of the "concealed dread and expectation which, only after the shot is fired, we knew had been there all along" (16). Barrett's father, he realizes, was trying to save his son from a living death, and, by implication, all the other characters in the book (and readers) are living such lives. "Ah," Barrett thinks, "there is a difference between feeling dead and not knowing it, and feeling dead and knowing it. Knowing it means there is a possibility of feeling alive though dead (324).

The medical crew in this book and the lukewarm Episcopal priest, a self-conscious do-gooder, seem to see life as mechanical. Percy, himself a trained doctor, is keen on showing that we are more than mechanisms. (This is his MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE, with language the key.) When Barrett is under psycho-tropic drugs, and feeling fine at last, he wonders, "Does it all come down to chemistry after all" (307)? We are encouraged to see that his contentment is not life, and the seemingly contented characters all around him are similarly drugged by TV, social projects, fitness, and fundamentalist religion.

An incidental pleasure of the book is Allison's peculiar way of speaking, as her repeated electro-shock treatments have made her native language strange to her. For example, she realizes that she loves Will Barrett as she reflects, "With him, silence didn't sprout" (251).

Overall, I'm glad I visited Walker Percy one more time. But, on the whole, I'd rather spend the time with Updike or Buechner, authors with similar concerns and a greater love of the their characters.

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