• Email
  • Print

Southern Discomfort

Lancelot

by Walker Percy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 257 pp., $8.95

Not very long ago a New York critic, who sometimes seems too acutely attuned to the fluctuations of literary fashion, proclaimed the extinction of the Southern novel as a vital force in American literature. He was indignantly scolded for his presumption by a far-from-extinct Southern writer who may any day surprise us with another masterpiece. Both the presumption and the indignation could have been averted by a more accurate phrasing of the issue. To the degree that the designation “Southern” suggests a backward region of eroded fields and fly-specked towns, obsessed by past glory and defeat, encumbered by an archaically complex system of class and race relationships, torn by conflicting tendencies toward humor, kindliness, xenophobia, and violence—to this degree the critic was probably right. The old subject matter has been pretty well exhausted, though green shoots will occasionally sprout from the hard-packed clay.

But another great subject has meanwhile presented itself: the transformation of the Deep South into the Sunbelt, that land of football fanatics, twice-born Baptists, pipe-line mechanics, and rapacious Buick dealers which stretches from Atlanta through Texas and beyond. Thus far it has been most conspicuously exploited in four novels by Walker Percy. The latest of these, Lancelot, is too flawed a performance to advance the cause of Southern fiction very far on its own, but it is an interesting book, one which knots together many themes that have preoccupied Percy from his rather late beginnings as a novelist. It will be useful to glance at the context established by Percy’s earlier novels before taking a hard look at Lancelot itself.

As a writer, Percy occupies an almost symbolically pivotal position from which to observe and respond to the metamorphosis of South into Sunbelt. The descendant of plantation owners and Confederate officers, with all the historical and sentimental attachments to the region which those facts imply, he is also very much a man of the present, a doctor of medicine with strong interests in science and contemporary linguistic theory. Another perspective is provided by the fact that he is a Roman Catholic in an area that is overwhelmingly Protestant. Although he now lives on the fringes of Catholic New Orleans, he spent many years in predominantly Baptist Alabama and Mississippi, where anti-Catholic prejudice was powerful; even now, he lives as that comparative rarity—an Anglo-Saxon Catholic among fellow churchmen of very different social and national backgrounds. The literary influences upon him have been more foreign than home-grown: Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Sartre, and Camus—the latter having meant more to him, he has recently stated, than Faulkner, who lived only a hundred miles away. He is thus at once a native and an alien, a man of ideas in a part of the country where the spoken word has always been more relished than the written, where literary talents have been traditionally nourished more by anecdote than by philosophy.

Percy’s special—even peculiar—set of interests has manifested itself in his fiction from the beginning. The Moviegoer (1961) is very much an “existential” novel of alienation, the story of the Underground Man in New Orleans. Its narrator and antihero, Jack Bolling, also known as Binx, is in the line of the great refusers, a line that includes Kafka’s Hunger Artist and the protagonist of Sartre’s Nausea as well as Dostoevsky’s monster of perversity. Binx refuses, for most of the novel, to accept the role assigned to him by family tradition and social class—a role that has a persuasive, if sometimes despairing, advocate in the person of his aristocratic Aunt Emily. Instead of living in the Garden District or the French Quarter, he inhabits a characterless suburb that might just as well be in Daytona or Los Angeles. Instead of consorting with debutantes and Mardi Gras queens, he prefers to make out with his secretaries, a series of Lindas and Marcias and Sharons with whom he likes to go spinning along the Gulf Coast, stopping to drink and lie in the sun. In Binx’s muffled world only the movies have the power to confer reality, only movie stars—William Holden, Rory Calhoun, Tony Curtis—can provide a temporary validation of his existence. The only other people capable of touching him deeply are fellow misfits like his deeply disturbed and suicidal step-cousin Kate and his devoutly Catholic half-brother, a fourteen-year-old cripple named Lonnie, who dies during the course of the novel.

The Moviegoer remains Percy’s best work, a perfect small novel whose themes, though important, are never allowed to overload the fictional craft. It is a book redolent of its time and place, a book with a thickly sensuous texture that can accommodate both the banalities of contemporary New Orleans and the glamorous aspects of Binx’s now meaningless heritage. It is full of expertly realized characters. The working out of the complex destinies of Binx and Kate is both believable and moving. I can think of no American novel in which the device of a first-person narrator has been used with finer tact, control, and shading.

The Last Gentleman (1966) is a much longer, more overtly ambitious enterprise. Its literary antecedents are Candide and the picaresque novel of the eighteenth century. Percy chooses a naïf as his protagonist, a young man of twenty-five from an old and honorable Delta family that has over the generations turned progressively ironical until it has finally lost its grip on life. Suffering from various nervous dislocations, including amnesia, Williston Bibb Barrett lives an almost totally isolated life at the 63rd Street YMCA in New York and works as a humidification engineer at Macy’s. Will Barrett is a lost soul of great politeness and good nature, ready to comply with almost anything that is proposed. Percy propels this young man into the orbit of an eccentric nouveauriche family from Alabama, the Vaughts, who have gathered in New York, where their youngest son Jamie is being treated for leukemia at a hospital; he then sends them all south again, with Will trailing along as a companion for Jamie and as an old-fashioned aspiring suitor of the daughter Kitty, with whom he has fallen in love. The subsequent adventures of Will, who eventually travels all the way to New Mexico, are too complicated for a retelling in this essay; it is worth pausing, however, to consider two aspects of the novel that are central to Percy’s fiction: the image of the South to which Will returns and the way in which the Catholic theme is handled.

The South he came home to was very different from the South he had left. It was happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic and Republican.” The Vaughts live in a 1920s castle on the edge of a golf links in the suburb of a booming industrial city suggestive of Birmingham. The other Vaught daughter, Val, who has become a nun and works with poor Negroes in a blighted part of the state, describes her childhood in these terms:

In the past…people have usually remembered their childhood in old houses in town or on dirt farms back in the country. But what I remember is the golf links and the pool. I spent every warm day of my girlhood at the pool, all day every day, even eating meals there. Even now it doesn’t seem right to eat a hamburger without having wrinkled fingers and smelling chlorine.

The Vaughts are shown as having sickened in this sunny world, psychically as well as physically. The older Vaught son, Sutter, is a failed doctor, a wastrel and a pornographer, a Dostoevskian diabolist bent upon violence and suicide. Even the jolly mother is addicted to books about the international Jewish conspiracy which was responsible for the defeat of the South in the Civil War.

In this novel, as in The Moviegoer, Percy handles the Catholic alternative so subtly, so diplomatically, that it is hardly to be perceived as an alternative at all. Percy is careful not to stack his deck, as Graham Greene often seems to do and as Waugh did so notoriously at the end of Brideshead Revisited. The nun Val is presented unattractively: a “plumpish bad-complexioned potato-fed Vaught,” capable of hatred and scorn. Sutter’s arguments against her position are given full weight. Even the death-bed baptism of Jamie, conducted by a reluctant Father Boomer at the request of Will, is kept carefully confused and inconclusive, though it is a moment of high drama at once moving and clinically gruesome.

I do not consider The Last Gentleman a wholly successful novel. It is somewhat like a hurricane swirling around a hollow center. Will Barrett is simply too blank, too passive a character to sustain the role assigned to him. But it is a rich book, with brilliant scenes, some of them marvelously funny.

Love in the Ruins (1971) is also rich and frequently funny, though in other respects it indicates, I think, a weakening of Percy’s grip upon his materials. Set in the pre-Orwellian year of 1983, it begins with a middle-aged doctor (the book’s narrator) sitting near the ramp of an interstate highway in Louisiana, a carbine on his lap, awaiting what may well be the end of the world. The doctor bears the name of his remote collateral ancestor, Sir Thomas More; he is a bad Catholic, an alcoholic, and quite possibly a madman. Within sight is a ruined Howard Johnson’s motel in which three young women—all of whom he loves—await his return.

The Sunbelt world of golf links, marinas, and shopping centers still exists in 1983; but things are now in a bad way; vines are encroaching everywhere; the young blacks have taken to the swamps, where they call themselves Bantus; atrocities occur daily; the Catholic Church has split into three parts, of which only the smallest still recognizes the supremacy of Rome; political divisions have hardened, the Republicans having become “Knotheads” (conservative, evangelical, prone to disorders of the lower bowel), while the Democrats are now the LEFT (advocates of the pill, pornography, abortion, love clinics, and euthanasia); in literature the Southern gothic novel has yielded to the Jewish masturbatory novel which has in turn given way to the WASP homosexual novel, which has nearly run its course.

The action centers upon an electronic gadget which Tom More has invented that can not only diagnose but alter mental and emotional states associated with the different areas of the brain. If the gadget has indeed, as the good doctor fears, fallen into the wrong hands, the consequences will be incalculable…. Love in the Ruins is a sharp-eyed, clever book that goes on much too long and strikes out in so many directions at once that it puts one in mind of a hornet’s nest poked by a stick. It suffers, if ever a novel suffered, from the looseness that Henry James saw as a major weakness of long novels in the first-person—from what he called “the terrible fluidity of self-revelation.” Given the truly astonishing amount of bourbon that More consumes during the course of his narrated adventures, one begins to compare the garrulity of the novel to that of an amusing, strident, and finally exasperating drunk who has trapped a hapless listener at the end of the bar.

In Lancelot the materials of the novel seem to have eluded Percy’s control altogether. Yet the book held my interest throughout, leaving me puzzled, disbelieving, but never bored. It is the story—again in the first person but told by a specific listener—of a corrupted Louisiana gentleman, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, who has been confined to a mental hospital in New Orleans after incinerating his adulturous wife Margot and a group of filmmakers in a fire that destroys his ancestral home, a showplace called Belle Isle. The listener is Percival, a psychiatrist-priest who comes regularly to Lancelot’s hospital room to be harangued by Lancelot, his closest buddy years before. Percival, in accordance with a device borrowed from Camus’s The Fall, is not allowed to speak except for a few ambiguous “yes’s” at the end of the novel. Another mute in the story is Anna, a girl in the adjoining room who has retreated into silence after having been gang-raped in the French Quarter. The novel alternates between Lancelot’s provocations of Percival, his account of the freaky events at Belle Isle, and his attempts to establish contact with Anna, at first by tapping on the wall.

The main action of the story is the sheerest Gothic claptrap, replete with a ghostly visitation, a grisly murder, and a raging hurricane; Percy, whether deliberately or not, handles this stuff in the perfunctory way it deserves. His real concerns are elsewhere—with the symbolic aspects of the situation, with Lance’s quest for the unholy Grail of pure evil, and with Lance’s tirades in the presence of Percival. Belle Isle constitutes a miniature allegory of the New South: a grand old plantation house, bought (along with its owner) by an oil-rich young woman from Texas who proceeds to restore it lavishly, only to lose interest in it (and in her husband) as she becomes enraptured by the idea of a career in films. The house itself is surrounded by oil refineries and gas wells, one of which has actually been dug beneath it, furnishing Lance with the means of achieving the final immolation.

Though Belle Isle is architecturally a composite, one of its models is an actual Louisiana plantation, Rosedown, which was not only restored by a rich Texas woman but contains an enormous Gothic bed originally designed for Henry Clay’s use in the White House in the event of his election—a bed which appears in Lancelot as having been made for John C. Calhoun. Margot herself, though presented rather engagingly at times, is less a developed character than a representative of the new money that has invaded the South, buying up old relics with which to disguise its rawness. The filmmakers are a pretentious, phony, and vapid lot—a collective caricature of Californian culture at its sleaziest—while the movie they are shooting at Belle Isle sounds like a parody of Tennessee Williams at his most overripe.

Lancelot, too, has a primarily emblematic function, one which touches interestingly upon the role of the gentleman in Percy’s novels from The Moviegoer on. Percy goes out of his way to establish the thoroughly regressed condition of his protagonist before the discovery of Margot’s infidelity “liberates” him into action. Lancelot is a heavy drinker, a failed lawyer, a failed liberal, a grubby and withdrawn stranger in his own house, which has been taken over by Hollywood; he no longer sleeps with his wife in the great John C. Calhoun bed, but lives in the restored pigeonnier on the grounds, watching TV and boozing himself into unconsciousness every night. What has failed him above all is his inherited vocation as a gentleman.

It is hard for a Northerner or even a native of the Upper South like myself to appreciate the self-conscious emphasis still given to the idea of the gentleman in the Deep South. Presumably it has more to do with the numerical smallness of the old landowning and professional class, with the comparative lack of a substantial middle class in the old Black Belt, than with the ethos of Sir Walter Scott. Percy himself gives every sign of participating in this self-consciousness. No doubt he comes by it naturally enough as the orphaned cousin and subsequently adopted son of the poet-planter William Alexander Percy, whose Lanterns on the Levee is a gracefully written distillation of patrician Southern attitudes toward politics (to be entered out of a sense of noblesse oblige), toward rednecks (to be regarded as the degenerate scum of the earth, a menace to justice and good order), and toward Negroes (to be protected by their natural superiors, who regard them with tenderness, exasperation, and amused condescension). Although Walker Percy has of course traveled light-years beyond the elder Percy’s convictions, he shares with him a concern with the role of the gentleman in a society he can no longer dominate. Here is William A. Percy on the subject:

…aristocratic virtues and standards never die completely and never change at all. General Lee and Senator Lamar would have been at ease, even simpatico, with Pericles and Brutus and Sir Philip Sidney, as Washington was with Lafayette.

This is chilly comfort, however, to the living members of the aristocracy in the act of dying…. Watching the flames mount, we, scattered remnant of the old dispensation, smile scornfully but grieve in our hearts. [Lanterns on the Levee, 1941]

For the elder Percy the barbarians were the rednecks—Faulkner’s Snopeses—whose demagogic representatives, Vardaman and Bilbo, snatched control of Mississippi politics from the grasp of such Delta Bourbons as W.A. Percy’s own father, Senator LeRoy Percy; for the gentlemen in Walker Percy’s novels, the enemy, of course, is nothing less global than the whole modern world, to which they respond by withdrawing into apathy like Binx, stumbling in amnesiac innocence like Will Barrett, or, like Lancelot Lamar (resonant surname!), by igniting a holocaust.

Far into the twentieth century, gentlemen of the Deep South lived by a code which we associate more with the frontier than with a settled society. Their representatives today are still haunted by the memory of both the code and its frequently violent enforcement. When, in the 1920s, Senator LeRoy Percy was threatened by the revived Ku Klux Klan, his son—the gentle poet—went to the office of the local Cyclops and said: “I want to let you know one thing: if anything happens to my Father or to any of our friends, you will be killed. We won’t hunt for the guilty party. So far as we are concerned, the guilty party will be you” (Lanterns on the Levee). Almost the identical episode is repeated in The Last Gentleman, there attributed to Will Barrett’s grandfather. In Lancelot it is repeated yet again, but with an ironical twist. Lancelot Lamar is reputed to have “called out” the local Kleagle when the Klan was threatening a family of blacks who “belonged” to the Lamars, and to have told him that he (Lance) would “shoot his ass off” if even a hair of one of the family was harmed. In fact, Lancelot had settled the matter during a friendly chat and drink with the Kleagle (an old high school acquaintance) but he does nothing to correct the more heroic version. And when the time comes, he proves capable of cutting the throat of his wife’s lover before committing Belle Isle to the cleansing (?) flames.

How are we to take all this? How are we to take Percy’s handling of the relationship between Lance and his houseboy Elgin, who is also a senior at MIT, a near genius in electronics? There has always been an oddity of tone in Percy’s depiction of Negroes, most of whom are house servants, gardeners, country club employees, and the like; only in Love in the Ruins do we encounter a black militant from the North. These servants are shrewdly observed, fully individualized, allowed a fair share of humanity, but their aspirations are invariably treated with a certain irony and condescension more appropriate to the author of Lanterns on the Levee than to the enlightened doctor of Covington, Louisiana. In Lancelot this almost covert tendency flares into the open. Lancelot takes a certain satisfaction in having the brilliant student don a white jacket and bring him his toddy, in recording the fact that Elgin, for all his education, still says “ax” instead of “ask.” What are we to understand by the loyal and unquestioning compliance of the young black when Lancelot enlists him to spy on Margot and her movie friends at a neighboring motel and then rig up an expensive videotape system by which Lance can actually view his wife and her lover as they “make the beast with two backs”?

The question points to the central problem of Lancelot as a novel; its ambiguity of tone. It would be easy enough to accept both the postures and opinions of Lancelot as appropriate to a created madman—a character properly at a distance from its creator—if they did not represent in an extreme form attitudes expressed by far more sympathetic characters in the other novels. When Lance states that in the new order he proposes a woman will have to choose between being a lady and a whore, he is echoing a confusion about women voiced by Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman. The satirical thrusts against the contemporary world in Love in the Ruins have given way to Juvenalian invective and rant in Lancelot—with a palpable loss in effectiveness. Lancelot’s fantasy of setting out for Virginia (“where it all started”), and there inaugurating a Third Revolution founded upon honor, chivalry, and the suppression of pornography could be enjoyed as comic megalomania if we did not suspect a certain authorial complicity in the protagonist’s program.

Percy evidently wants to have it both ways. He apparently hoped that the device of the priest-psychiatrist Percival as a silent listener would create a dialogue of sorts, that the priest’s shrugs and gestures could serve as a corrective to the fulminations of Lancelot. There is evidence that he conceived of Percival both as the “Catholic alternative” and also as the partial embodiment of the author’s presence in the novel. The name “Percival,” of course, has Arthurian connotations to match “Lancelot,” but it also incorporates the word “Percy.” We are told that as a boy the priest was called Harry or sometimes Harry Hotspur and that he lived in a house called Northumberland—clear references not only to the surname (Percy) of the earls of Northumberland but to the fact (unrevealed in the novel) that the ancestral plantation of the American Percys was called Northumberland.

Even the subtly homosexual aspect of the friendship of the two men—their frequently shared nudity, their simultaneous copulation with the same whore—assumes a different coloration if the two buddies are perceived as a splitting of the authorial persona. But such arcane game-playing strikes me as a kind of self-indulgence on Percy’s part, symptomatic of the novel’s cross-purposes. Percy is unsuccessful in making Percival carry his assigned weight, just as he is unsuccessful in assembling the different levels of reality—documentary, Gothic, satiric, symbolic—in-to a coherent structure.

It is too bad that Percy is not content to be a “mere” novelist—and a gifted one at that. His apparent desire to be a philosopher-novelist in the Continental mode leads him, in Lancelot, to chase a dozen thematic butterflies at once while his real subject—the haunting of the Sunbelt by atavistic, even pathological, remnants of the old dispensation—lies half-formed and neglected in the mud.

  • Email
  • Print