The first time I read Walker Percy it didn’t click. I was dismayed by his humorous, idiosyncratic, Catholic fiction. Although his books were well-written, I didn’t really care for his disoriented Southern gentlemen. And I felt the same way about most Southern writers, to tell you the truth. They were writing from a courteous-cum-trashy Gothic Garden of Eden culture I didn’t understand.
Now I’ve evolved into a lover of Southern novels. It’s not that I necessarily “get” Southern culture, but it makes for absorbing reading; and, in the course of a week, Walker Percy has become one of my favorite writers on the basis of one novel, The Second Coming. This lost classic is in-print, as are all of Percy’s books, but no one seems to talk about it.
Maybe they’re reading it down South.
In this funny, beautifully written existentialist novel, Will Barrett is the anti-hero, a middle-aged lawyer who has retired early in New York and moved back to North Carolina to play golf and…what? He isn’t sure. He is hallucinating on the golf course, falling down repeatedly, blacking out, and having flashbacks to his childhood. Death is on his mind, and no wonder. His wife has died, and he is living alone. Because of the petit mal seizures, he becomes obsessed with a childhood hunting trip on which his father “accidentally” shot both Will and himself. His father later committed suicide (by gun) in an attic in Mississippi.
What is the meaning of life? What does death mean? What is the death in life his father tried to avoid? And what is God? Why are anti-believers as obnoxious as believers? Can he prove that God exists? His daughter is a fanatical Christian. Will is on the verge of madness as his busy mind explores philosophical questions. And he gradually becomes involved with Allie, a rich, brilliant young woman, considered mad by the world, who has escaped from a mental hospital and is living in a greenhouse. The two meet when one of his golf balls smashes a window in the greenhouse. And Allie gradually becomes stronger to take care of Will.
Percy gets inside both of these characters’ heads and reveals the mix of madness and brilliance. His humor is sometimes dark, sometimes illuminating, as he explores the relationship of bourgeois convention to truth, of death to life, of madness to understanding.
Every sentence is beautifully crafted. I read this difficult book in a couple of days, because even though it is characterized by stream-of-consciousness and existential angst, it is very funny and, yes, a page-turner.
I can’t praise Percy’s writing too much. He is also a fascinating person. He studied to be a psychiatrist, then got tuberculosis, converted to Catholicism, and began to write. He won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer in 1960.
His father committed suicide, which probably accounts for the obsession with suicide in this novel.
I have also just discovered that Will is also a character in one of Percy’s earlier novels, The Last Gentleman. Guess what I’ll be reading next?