To the Greenhouse

The Second Coming

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

Walker Percy
Walker Percy; drawing by David Levine

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…

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