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To the Greenhouse

The Second Coming

by Walker Percy
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 360 pp., $12.95

Like some cranky, humorously irritable, small-town autodidact, Dr. Walker Percy continues to rail against the insanity of modern American life as he encounters it. One imagines him shaking his fist at the cheery, complacent twiceborn as they stream out of the First Baptist Church on a Sunday morning; or growling imprecations at some jovial golfers on the fairway, telling them that knocking that silly little ball around is merely their futile way of denying the obvious: that they are all dead, whether they know it or not. More genially, one imagines him sipping bourbon, spouting Hamlet, quoting Kierkegaard, producing arcane bits of neurological or linguistic lore, attacking psychoanalysis and the Californian ethos, and speculating about the mysterious destiny of the Jews with some equally wry crony—perhaps a Roman Catholic priest.

But this is fantasy. Walker Percy is neither a small-town crank nor an autodidact; well educated both generally and medically, he has had considerable urban experience in the North as well as the South, has read a great deal of modern linguistic theory, and has established himself as a professional novelist, of whose books one, The Moviegoer, is already a minor classic and the others have all enjoyed the respectful attention of critics and a loyal following of readers. The impression of crankiness comes from certain repetitive, even obsessional concerns which he voices through the male protagonists of each of his five novels; of autodidacticism from the unfashionable way in which he displays his reading and takes seriously a hodgepodge of ideas concerning the ultimate verities—ideas that are likely, in the case of the systematically educated (miseducated?), to have receded long since into a gray blur of skepticism.

Percy is indeed an isolated figure. Of the dozen or so novelists that one might name to, say, a Czechoslovakian intellectual inquiring about American fiction during the last two decades, he is certainly the least assimilated to any category, movement, or trend. Realist, fabulist, experimentalist, post-modernist—none of the tags applies. Though profoundly Southern in his roots, Percy cannot be called a regionalist in the sense that Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty are; nor, despite his avowed faith, is he in any simple or obvious way a Catholic novelist. We must accept him as a kind of literary sport, one who imposes his own terms.

The above impressions are all reinforced by The Second Coming. Percy’s latest novel—his most successful, I think, since The Moviegoer—is an existentialist fairy tale set realistically enough in a prosperous outpost of the Sunbelt, a town called Linwood in the mountains of North Carolina not far from Asheville. Linwood is one of those Appalachian resorts to which well-to-do lowland Southerners and Yankee millionaires have been coming for generations. Thoroughly up-to-date, it contains condominiums, duplex chalets, a handsome golf course, and a sanitarium; its population includes joggers, hikers, hippies, and weekenders from Atlanta as well as the sort of retired businessman who drives a Mercedes and also plays golf at Hilton Head and Sea Island.

In this pleasant, smiling community lives a character Percy has used before: Will Barrett, whom we encountered in The Last Gentleman (1966) as an amiable, well-born young Southerner given to spells of amnesia and déjà vu. Recently widowed, Will, now in his late forties, is not only rich but inordinately rich, his wife’s fortune having been in the $50-million range. Having retired early from his New York law practice to settle in Linwood, Will looks after his late wife’s local philanthropies and plays a lot of golf. His only daughter, Leslie, is a new-style Christian intent upon devising a non-canonical ceremony for her upcoming marriage to a twiceborn Californian architect. Father and daughter are not—and never have been—close.

Recently Will has been experiencing not only depression but a number of curious mental phenomena: “quasisensory” symptoms, odd “petty-mall” lapses, and a crowding-in of unbidden memories that is the opposite of his old symptom of amnesia. The lives of other people strike him as farcical, even more farcical than his own; yet it is he—not they—who often thinks of killing himself. Strange ideas keep cropping up, among them the notion that all the Jews of North Carolina are leaving the state. Is their departure a sign that the Last Days are at hand? More alarming to the young doctor who plays golf with him is the fact that Will unaccountably falls down in the bunker on the golf course. Is that a sign of some neurological disturbance, a small hemorrhage or arterial spasm in the brain? On the day after his fall in the bunker, Will, who is an excellent golfer, uncharacteristically slices out of bounds. While he is going into the woods to look for the ball, the creaking of a lifted strand of barbed wire triggers a vivid sense memory that carries him back to an event in his boyhood—an event which, though forgotten, was the most important of his life. “Everything else that had happened afterward was a non-event.”

The sense memory, thus Proustianly induced, concerns a quail hunt in the Georgia woods when Will was twelve. On that day Will had been knocked down and his face grazed with shot when his father, separated from the boy in the woods, swung to fire at a single rising quail; shortly afterward, the father had seriously wounded himself with his own shotgun. An accident? The exact reconstruction of the happenings of that day—the number of shots fired, the number of shells used—becomes a preoccupation of Will’s as the book proceeds. We learn (with detail that differs from the account in The Last Gentleman) that Will’s father, whom Will regularly addresses as “old mole” in the manner of Hamlet, later succeeded in killing himself, gruesomely, by taking the double-barrel of a shotgun into his mouth and pulling both triggers. What lesson was he trying to teach his son? Is suicide to be the answer for Will as well?

Halfway through The Second Coming, the explanation of the events of that far-off day in the swampy woods comes to Will like the click of a shotgun’s breech as it is snapped into place: his angry, loving, despairing father had fired not at the rising quail but at his son, in an attempt to kill the boy before killing himself. This revelation has a liberating effect on Will—he laughs out loud—and it leads to the Great Discovery.

What was the Great Discovery? We may as well say it right out. It dawned on him that his father’s suicide was wasted. It availed nothing, proved nothing, solved nothing, posed no questions let alone answered questions, did nobody good. It was no more than an exit, a getting up and a going out, a closing of a door.

Secure now in this discovery, Will determines that his own suicide, if it comes to that, will not be wasted. He decides to descend, by a narrow back entrance, into a vast cave underlying the mountain at Linwood; there he will seek to prove, once and for all, whether God exists or not. If God, in the depths of the cave, gives Will a sign, he will emerge from the cave to resume his life in light of the revelation; if God gives no sign, Will will die in the cave but in such a way that suicide cannot be proven. The narrator of The Second Coming apostrophizes Will’s decision with characteristic extravagance:

So it was that Will Barrett went mad. His peculiar delusion and the strange pass it brought him to would be comical if it were not so perilous…. He had become convinced that the Last Days were at hand, that the world had fallen into the hands of the only species which knew how to destroy itself along with all other living creatures on earth…; that it was characteristic of this species that,…while professing a love of peace and freedom and life, secretly it loved war and thralldom and death and loved them to a degree that it, the species, in these last days behaved like creatures possessed by demons; that the end would come by fire, a fire such as had not been seen in all of history until this century of demons, a fire which would consume the earth….

Madness! Madness! Madness! Yet such was the nature of Will Barrett’s peculiar delusion when he left his comfortable home atop a pleasant Carolina mountain and set forth on the strangest adventure of his life, descended into Lost Cove cave looking for proof of the existence of God and a sign of the apocalypse like some crackpot preacher in California.

The consequences of this archetypal descent into the underworld stretch out to the end of the novel.

But now take a deep breath: Will’s story forms only half of this longish book. The other (and better) half, presented in alternate chapters, belongs to a girl of about twenty, Allison Huger, who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic and subjected to repeated courses of electro-shock therapy. She is the daughter of Katherine Vaught Huger (Will’s old girlfriend Kitty in The Last Gentleman), who is now a bossy, brassy, good-looking woman married acrimoniously to a dentist; it is in the interest of Allison’s parents to maintain their daughter’s mental incompetence in order to get control of some extremely valuable property that Allison has unexpectedly inherited from an old lady to whom she had once been kind. To further this scheme, Kitty plans to reignite Will’s old desire for her, in the hope that she can then use him to solve some of the legal problems concerning Allison.

Her memory nearly obliterated by her latest course of shock-therapy, Allison, with the aid of a memorandum she had earlier dictated to herself, ingeniously escapes from the sanitarium and makes a home for herself in an old greenhouse on her inherited Linwood property. A large, strangely undemonstrative stray dog moves in and keeps her company. A girl who in the past “made straight A’s and flunked ordinary living,” Allison, in her severe alienation, has a special problem with words. “She took words seriously to mean more or less what they said, but other people seemed to use words as signals in another code they had agreed upon.” She has lost that code, along with her memory. When a runner in a red sweatsuit sits down next to her on a bench in town and says, “I just ran eighteen miles,” she asks, “Why?” And when he tells her that he has been “into running for three months,” she wonders what the expression means and whether he is in trouble—on the run. Her own speech is peculiar, characterized by bizarre, condensed metaphor (“Are you still climbing on your anger?”) and an addiction to rhyme (“The arrangement is the derangement,” “After thanks come blanks”). For her, as for some feral child, the human world must be constructed, or reconstructed, piece by piece.

Living in the greenhouse, which is the only surviving part of an old estate, Allison slowly, meticulously, and at last joyfully rebuilds her life, restoring her memory and puzzling out the relationship between words and meanings. Some of the most powerful and moving passages of the novel depict Allison’s successful effort to master the use of a block-and-tackle in order to move a magnificent old stove from the basement of the ruined mansion to the greenhouse. Eventually Will and Allison meet at the greenhouse, and their destinies are joined. Their needs are complementary: Allison tenderly nurses Will when he is injured, while he, taking the trouble to decipher her odd speech, helps to interpret the world for her. At this point The Second Coming shifts into a love story as touching, as improbable, and as shamelessly wishfulfilling as any reader of sentimental fiction could desire. The novel concludes on a note of holy romance, with goodness and kindness and sanity blossoming in every crevice and cranny of the wasteland; it is only at the end that Percy introduces what some of his readers have been anticipating—a practicing Roman Catholic, in this case an ancient, battered missionary-priest.

Affinities with the earlier novels other than The Last Gentleman will be apparent to any faithful reader of Percy. Like Will Barrett, Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer perceives the people around him as dead; to Binx also the Jews appear as a mysterious “sign.” The Will-Allison relationship has its counterpart not only in Binx’s quixotic marriage to his step-cousin, the near-psychotic Kate, but also—and more strikingly—in the communication established between Lancelot Lamar (of Lancelot) and the mute, ravished girl Anna, who is confined to the room next to his in a mental hospital; the situation involving an experienced, alienated, but protective older man with a badly damaged girl seems to have a special, perhaps private, appeal for Percy. Like the fat novels that have succeeded the beautifully lean Moviegoer, The Second Coming contains enough plot for three ordinary novels, sufficient themes for a dozen, and enough archetypal symbolism and mythopoeic incident to employ a busy Jungian researcher for a decade.

Though the characters, especially the minor ones, are shrewdly observed and portrayed, they give the impression of having been created less for their own sake—or the story’s sake—than for the beliefs, attitudes, and, above all, the follies which they represent. Through them and through Will, Walker Percy is able to have his say on a wide variety of weighty topics: freedom of the will versus neurological or chemical determinism; the Pascalian wager on the existence of God; the deadness (and deadliness) of the modern world; the role of love in communication and teaching; the nature of language, symbolization, and semiotics; the abominable treatment of the elderly and the mad. Through his portrayal of Allison’s madness, Percy seems to advance the notion (recently popularized by R. D. Laing and Doris Lessing) that schizophrenics may be in touch with profound truths unavailable to those who are trying to “cure” them. Allison tells the fatuous Pakistani psychiatrist who prescribes shock-therapy that she needs to “go down to her white dwarf”—an inner core as “hard and bright as a diamond”—and that shock-therapy (“buzzing”) and drugs prevent her from doing so. (Allison’s descent into the ultimate depths of her madness is, of course, analogous to Will’s descent into the cave.)

Thematic surplus in a novel is arguably preferable to thematic anemia. Great themes, we are told, make great novels. But big themes, especially in long novels, need the momentum of big actions to sweep them triumphantly past the petty diversions produced by raw assertion, argumentation, sectarianism, and the squeaking of over-ridden hobby-horses. And it is in the mounting and sustaining of action that I find Percy’s long, ambitious, multi-directed novels (in contrast to his one small, quiet, perfected novel) unsatisfactory. In the case of The Second Coming the story-line wavers between a realistic ordering of events and the contrivances of allegorical romance. Too often the incidents, like the characters, seem to result from the author’s impassioned need to illustrate a point. A reader unable (like myself) to give intellectual assent to the Christianized existentialism at the novel’s center must be enticed by the charm and power of the dramatic action into granting imaginative assent; and that granting, in my case, failed to occur. Only the Allison story provided sufficient enchantment for me to cease worrying about its psychological (and spiritual) credibility. And at the novel’s ending I found myself withholding even the credence one gives to a well-wrought fairy tale.

This faltering between modes, this clash of mixed intentions, is reflected also in the unevenness of the novel’s prose. When narrating a concretely envisioned action such as Allison’s escape from the sanitarium or her struggle with the huge stove or Will’s actual entry into the cave, Percy is a powerful and convincing writer, capable of recording phenomena with sensuous exactitude, of creating movement and suspense. But when he turns sententious, he is likely to indulge in sheer rant, often phrased in up-to-the-minute colloquialisms that ill become the seriousness of his intentions; it is then that he reminds me of a hippie-clergyman (a type that Percy surely deplores) attempting to “level” with his congregation. And when he waxes eloquent, the result can be positively Faulknerian in its turgidity. Here are three illustrative passages, of which the first concerns Allison:

Another afternoon a hiker asked for a drink of water at the greenhouse. Unshouldering his scarlet backpack, he sat beside her on the floor of the little porch. Though he was young and fair as a mountain youth, his face was dusky and drawn with weariness. When he moved, his heavy clothes were as silent as his skin. He smelled, she imagined, like soldier, of sweat and leather gear. They were sitting, knees propped up. His arm lay across his knee, the hand suspended above her knees. She looked at the hand. Tendons crossed the boxy wrist, making ridges and swales. A rope of vein ran along the placket of muscle in the web of the thumb….

As she watched, the hand fell off his knee and fell between her knees. She looked at him quickly to see if he had dozed off but he had not. The hand was rubbing her thigh. She frowned: I don’t like this but perhaps I should. Embarrassed for him, she cleared her throat and rose quickly, but the hand tightened on her thigh and pulled her down. Mainly she was embarrassed for him. Oh, this is too bad. Is something wrong with me? The dog growled, his eyes turning red as a bull’s. The man thanked her and left. He too seemed embarrassed.

The second is from a letter of Will’s to Dr. Sutter Vaught, whom the reader may recall as the Dostoevskian nihilist from The Last Gentleman:

The present day unbeliever is a greater asshole than the present-day Christian because of the fatuity, blandness, incoherence, fakery, and fatheadedness of his unbelief. He is in fact an insane person. If God does in fact exist, the present-day unbeliever will no doubt be forgiven because of his manifest madness.

The present-day Christian is either half-assed, nominal, lukewarm, hypocritical, sinful, or, if fervent, generally offensive and fanatical. But he is not crazy.

The present-day-unbeliever is crazy as well as being an asshole—which is why I say he is a bigger asshole than the Christian because a crazy asshole is worse than a sane asshole.

And in the third Will describes the suicide of his father as an act of autofellatio:

I remember now. I cleaned the gun when I got it back from the sheriff in Mississippi. Both barrels. Wouldn’t one have been enough? Yes, given an ordinary need for death. But not if it’s a love of death…. And what samurai selflove of death, let alone the little death of everyday fuck-you love, can match the double Winchester come of taking oneself into oneself, the cold-steel extension of oneself into mouth, yes, for you, for me, for us, the logical and ultimate act of fuck-you love fuck-off world, the penetration and union of perfect cold gunmetal into warm quailing mortal flesh, the coming to end all coming, brain cells which together faltered and fell short, now flowered and flew apart, flung like stars around the whole dark world.

The book’s language is no respecter of persons. Will Barrett has not been conceived or portrayed as someone who would write or formulate his thoughts in the language used in those two passages; the lack of a verbal center in Will renders him damagingly amorphous as a character who must shoulder much of the novel’s thematic burden. Even Allison’s distinctive speech, which is often fascinating in its dislocations, stems from her condition rather than from what might be called her character or personality. Nor have I been able to isolate anything that can be identified as Percy’s own style; authorial intrusion is constant but with no consistent authorial voice. The jangle of multiple voices, not all of them well conceived, contributes to the somewhat amateurish quality which I find disturbing in the novel.

But if The Second Coming is flawed, as it seems to me, in its aesthetic and formal dimensions, the book is in almost every way an improvement over its immediate predecessors: more coherent that The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins (both of which went off like a bag of assorted fireworks accidentally lit) and less stridently pretentious than the fake-Gothic Lancelot (the only novel of Percy’s that I consider thoroughly bad). It is a work full of sharp, quirky perceptions, vividly achieved small scenes, and one extended fable—the Allison-in-the-greenhouse fable—that continues to flourish magically when the book is closed.

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