It wouldn't have taken much over the forty years since Walker Percy's Lancelot first appeared to say the novel has gained in critical appraisal. Even damning with faint praise would have improved on its sneering dismissal in 1977 by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who reviewed it for The New York Times. “...if it is true that Lancelot Lamar is not Walker Percy,” Lehmann-Haupt wrote, “then it is one of the very few respects in which this novel works as fiction.”
Lehmann-Haupt (I despise him alone for his pompous byline) thus concludes his review, which took nose-wrinkling offense at the “upsetting ideas” propounded by the novel’s hateful, murderous, bigoted “Southern gentleman” narrator Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, who is imprisoned throughout Percy’s fourth novel.
I, of course, did not read Lancelot with a critical eye. If I even have a critical eye it’s undoubtedly stunted and rarely if ever involved in my literary experiences. To me the idea of reading with an elevated pinky is akin to an academic exercise, likely to distract me from becoming absorbed in the experience. With Lancelot, though, I find I cannot avoid agreeing to a certain degree with the disagreeable Lehmann-Haupt. This is because I invariably identify with narrators and/or protagonists in novels, and it was a bit of a stretch for me to do so with the hateful, murderous, bigoted “Southern gentleman” Lancelot Andrewes Lamar. Nonetheless, the SOB fascinated me. I suspect this was because I felt Walker Percy’s presence in the guise of his main character walking a perilously high, thin wire, with his less admirable and his better selves on opposite ends of the balancing pole. Taking this risk, perhaps, that we might test our own balance on the same wire, with our own pole.
And there are a lot of distractions: wind gusts, birds flying too close, hecklers, rock throwers, the need to sneeze, pee—so much to jar our equilibrium. This, in 1977, seems nearer than ever to buffeting us into the void, this notion the U.S. is “down the drain. Everyone knows it. The people have lost it to the politicians, bureaucrats, drunk Congressmen, lying Presidents, White House preachers, C.I.A., F.B.I., Mafia, Pentagon, pornographers, muggers, buggers, bribers, bribe takers, rich crooked cowboys, sclerotic Southerners, rich crooked Yankees, dirty books, dirty movies, dirty plays, dirty talk shows, dirty soap operas, fags, lesbians, abortionists, Jesus shouters, anti-Jesus shouters, dying cities, dying schools, courses in how to fuck for schoolchildren.”
I had to check back with my Kindle edition of Lancelot to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently copied the above from something shouted during our last national election season. Sure enough, it’s a diatribe erupting from “Southern gentleman” Lancelot Andrewes Lamar in his long-winded (book-length), evidently uninterrupted monologue to “Percival”, a psychiatrist-priest he’s known since childhood. We see Percival speaking only at the novel’s very end, and then only answering questions from Lamar, and with only “yes” or “no”.
I read the diatribe cringing, of course, because of my inability not to identify with protagonists, but also finding myself agreeing with parts of Lancelot’s indictment. This ambivalence continued for me throughout the book.
Blogger Tom Conoboy, in a more recent (and more literary than this) revisit of Lancelot, says, “Percy creates a caricature to test how far one can go before a simple alienation from the modern slides into nihilism. Like Flannery O’Connor with Hazel Motes (although more convincingly), he tries to view the world through the eyes of someone who has become irreconcilably repulsed by it. Certainty becomes madness, rightful indignation rots into evil: in a world untouched by grace, Percy is telling us, only pain may reside, and only evil may obtain.”
Before he goes literary on us, comparing Lancelot with Camus’s The Fall, Conoboy gives us “the simplistic view,” suggesting that Percy might be “dispatching us all to hell, with no hope of redemption whatever. However, the remarkable ending makes clear that Percy believes, on the contrary, that redemption is within our grasp.” Not surprising, as we know Percy is a Catholic and that the possibility of spiritual redemption is never completely out of the picture in his work.
I might clarify that were Lancelot merely a philosophical puzzle simplistically disguised as a novel you would not be reading this review, as I would not have finished the book. It’s the fourth of Percy’s six novels I’ve read more than once. I liked it probably superficially the first time, when it came out, and I liked it in more depth this time. This time I had the advantage of forty additional years of life, as well as having read everything I could find by Percy at least once, and having some time back bought a cheap park bench for sitting under our pecan trees trying to capture the relaxed, sardonic feeling Percy suggests in the publicity photos showing him sprawled on similar park benches. (if this seems a tad over the top for a grown man’s admiration of another grown man, consider this, which I found on the Wiki page devoted to Percy: “As young men, Percy and [lifelong friend Shelby] Foote decided to pay their respects to William Faulkner by visiting him in Oxford, Mississippi. But when they arrived at his home, Percy was so in awe of the literary giant that he could not bring himself to speak to him. He later recounted how he could only sit in the car and watch while Foote and Faulkner had a lively conversation on the porch.” Quite certain I’d have been equally dumbstruck by a similar opportunity to speak to Walker Percy.)
But back to Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, whom I should also despise because of his pompous name, but could not because I had to identify with him. And he really wasn’t that hard to identify with despite the tortured logic of his outrage. He’s a well-spoken, genteel Southern aristocrat from a defunct old family, known mainly for having run a punted football 110 yards for a touchdown against mighty Alabama. He’s been confined to a cell in a mental hospital for a year when we listen in on his book-long confession to the silent Percival. We learn incrementally several tangible things about Lancelot, that before his confinement he was an indifferent lawyer and that he lost his marbles when he discovered that the daughter he thought was his by his current (second) wife was fathered by someone else.
We learn by increments the agonizing steps Lancelot and his wife took from the moment he learned of his cuckoldry to the happening that landed him in the cell.
I learned something provocative as a coda to the novel, in a comment someone posted anonymously on the Conoboy essay. Some might consider it a spoiler, but I read it before finishing my second read of Lancelot, and it introduced a whole ‘nother way to look at the story: “In 1987, I wrote to Walker Percy, reporting that I'd seen a first edition copy of The Moviegoer priced at $600. I also asked about the accuracy of my speculation that the novel, Lancelot, ended with the priest prepared to confess that he was the father of the character, Siobhan.
“In a single-leaf, handwritten letter with his rubber-stamped letterhead, Mr. Percy replied on May 29, 1987:
You should have picked up that Moviegoer at $600 if it was in good shape. In NYC last month, I ran into a guy who paid $1500 for one-For odd lesser known books of mine, I'd advise getting in touch with John Evans, Lemuria Bookstore, Highland Village, Jackson, Miss.
In answer to your question re Siobhan: Would you believe I don't remember? I never read a novel once it is written, being sick to death with it. I'll take your version though. It must be so.
“Kevin” adds, “To me, it explains much of the story.” I wouldn’t go so far, but it adds a dimension I’m still considering.
Might have to read the damned book yet again!
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]