After rereading five of his six novels, I wondered after the fifth if maybe I was burning out on Walker Percy's whiny angsty men. But upon reflection I believe I'm “onto something,” as Percy liked to put it about chasing life’s dark mysteries. What I’m onto is a suspicion his male protagonists are simply rotten spoiled. They’re all good looking, athletic, articulate, accomplished, and moneyed—either by birth or marriage—but, alas, they’re not happy. Oh me oh my.
I reread the novels willy nilly, not in the order they were written, as I’d done the first time around. Not sure now it would have made much different. The existentially miserable men, it’s become plain as what I think is dog doo-doo on the toe of my shoe, are essentially the same miserable man. In fact two men ostensibly appear by name more than once, one each in two of four of the novels. But this is a small point, as either of these two men are easily interchangeable with the protagonists of the other two novels. Only the names and ages are different.
What I like best about The Last Gentleman, which was Percy’s second, and which I reread second to last, is a secondary character so refreshingly different from the predictable Percy protagonist I wish Percy’d written a novel featuring him instead of the ubiquitous whiner. Were this character in the movie that surely would have been made of such a novel, he’d be played by Hugh Laurie reprising his irascible genius diagnostician of the too-short-running TV series called simply House. Or rather his TV role would have been a reprise of the Dr. Sutter Vaught character, first introduced in The Last Gentleman, since that novel predated the TV series by several decades. What I’m trying to say is Sutter Vaught is Gregory House, the physician you would want at the bedside of you or your loved one if life were at stake. No matter how rude, seemingly indifferent, or self-destructive he (the doctor) might be.
Dr. Sutter Vaught scoffs at Will Barrett’s dismay over not finding happiness. Barrett is torn between what Vaught calls “transcendence” (idealism) and its opposite “immanence” (realism). Here’s how Percy describes Barrett’s problem: “It had come over him again, the old itch for omniscience. One day it was longing for carnal knowledge, the next for perfect angelic knowledge.” You want to slap the kid and tell him to get laid, which he evidently doesn’t in this novel. We have to wait for the sequel, The Second Coming, for that, but then, of course, he’s still having trouble finding happiness. Unfortunately no one can slap him down to Earth because, psychologically fragile though he is, he was a middleweight boxing sensation before dropping out of Princeton to work as a janitor in New York City and spy on Kitty, the young woman he’ll eventually have carnal longings for, the young woman who is Dr. Sutter Vaught’s sister. [SPOILER ALERT] Barrett’s still having carnal longings for Kitty—at least her ass--in the sequel, although now he’s “nearing middle age.” a widower with an unpleasant screwball daughter, and falls “in love” with Kitty’s daughter, who just might be...nah, no carnal, er, solid evidence.
I liked Will Barrett better in the sequel, found him easier to identify with. Partly because the sexual tension is less angsty. Still troubled, of course, he’s learned to take charge of himself. He has to. There’s no Sutter Vaught to look to for advice. Sutter Vaught, who cured patients of depression by admitting them for a brief stay in the hospital’s terminal ward.
|Dr. House trying either to save a patient's life or seduce her|
Barrett is too contrived a character in The Last Gentleman to be sympathetic. Reminded me of the sort of modern fictional action types who can do whatever they need to do to win—shoot like Annie Oakley, fly an airplane, a chopper, race a speedboat, a motorcycle, etc. etc. Barrett’s self-proclaimed “nervous condition,” which involves episodes of amnesia and deja vu, and a leg with a mind of its own, does not impair his effectiveness in a barroom brawl, which he manages with aplomb because, we learn at the opportune moment, he’d been quarterback of his high school football team.
Yet he’s unhappy. Oh, poor baby.
Yet, I give Percy a pass on his characterizations because his writing is sublime, is so artful you can never be sure if he’s pulling your leg or sending you up or screwing up an eye to get your reaction. He’s a sly, Southern gentleman, and his take on sly, shrewd Southernness is so authentic this old Yankee-cum-Virginian knows to sit back and enjoy the show and keep his notions to himself. And Percy’s getting at more here than merely why philosophizing, privileged males are so conflicted. He’s taking on all of modern Western society, claiming the “malaise” that helped Ronald Reagan spoil Jimmy Carter’s re-election hopes is real. Percy’s philosophizing miserables blame “everydayness” in a world that promises unlimited possibilities that individuals—men, anyway—go nuts worrying if they’re making the right choices.
Here’s Percy explaining young Barrett’s epiphany after concluding the woman he’s peeped at through his telescope in Central Park—Kitty—is the love of his life: “For until this moment he had lived in a state of pure possibility, not knowing what sort of a man he was or what he must do, and supposing therefore that he must be all men and do everything. But after this morning’s incident his life took a turn in a particular direction. Thereafter he came to see that he was not destined to do everything but only one or two things. Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.” Alas, as this is the beginning of The Last Gentleman, and because this is a Walker Percy novel, we know poor Barrett has fooled himself once again.
As The Last Gentleman came out seven years after Percy’s debut, which shocked the literary world by winning a National Book Award, it’s understandable he was under considerable pressure to follow up The Moviegoer with another slam dunk. I’m guessing either he felt licensed by his success to pull out all of the stops, or he simply tried too hard. As I mentioned above, his writing is so splendid that the former seems more likely, and that he focused more on this aspect than on character and plot. Startlingly brilliant use of language in the oddest places kept me on my toes despite my body English trying to slap some sense into the infuriatingly waffling Will Barrett. Here are a couple of insights regarding silence that astonished me:
“The engineer [Barrett] woke listening. Something had happened. There was not a sound, but the silence was not an ordinary silence. It was the silence of a time afterwards. It had been violated earlier. His heart beat a strong steady alarm. He opened his eyes. A square of moonlight lay across his knees.
“A shot had been fired. Had he dreamed it? Yes. But why was the night portentous? The silence reverberated with insult.”
And here’s description that’s pure beauty: “It was a dewy bright haunted October morning. The silvery old Rock City barns leaned into the early sunlight. Killdeers went crying along the fallow fields where tough shallow spiderwebs were scattered like saucers. Now and then the Lincoln crossed deep railroad cuts filled with the violet light of ironweed.”
I have just started The Moviegoer for the fourth time, was surprised to see how happy the protagonist is with his situation. “I am a stock and bond broker,” Binx Bolling tells us. “It is true that my family was somewhat disappointed in my choice of a profession. Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o’clock like everyone else; having a girl and perhaps one day settling down and raising a flock of Marcias and Sandras and Lindas of my own. Nor is the brokerage business as uninteresting as you might think. It is not a bad life at all.”
Presumably, when I read this the very first time, before the others, I felt good about old Binx (whom I would identify with) and settled in for a pleasant ride. Soon, however, still in the first chapter, I came upon the first uh oh: “For ten minutes I stand talking to Eddie Lovell and at the end of it, when we shake hands and part, it seems to me that I cannot answer the simplest question about what has taken place. As I listen to Eddie speak plausibly and at length of one thing and another—business, his wife Nell, the old house they are redecorating—the fabric pulls together into one bright texture of investments, family projects, lovely old houses, little theater readings and such. It comes over me: this is how one lives! My exile in Gentilly has been the worst kind of self-deception.”
Nonetheless, I much enjoyed the ride, bumps, frustrations, and all. That damned Percy!
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]