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The Last Gentleman ()


Anthony Burgess : 99 Best Modern Novels (1934-84) (1966)

One of the more curious concepts you'll ever come across is the idea of Christian existentialism, but this is what Walker Percy is commonly described as having believed in.  The form that this odd philosophy seems to have taken is that Man is adrift in the universe, unable to determine the purpose of existence, but should, nonetheless, live a life of Christian virtue.  The oddity of this ethos is revealed by the simple question : why ?  If life has no purpose, then who cares how we behave toward one another ?  Why not get away with whatever you can ?

As Percy expressed it, the focus of his writing was ''the dislocation of man in the modern age.''  The form that this concern took in his novels was typically to have a young man of upper class Southern stock sort of flail about for the meaning of life.  As a result, his books have a certain sameness, and though he's not widely read enough to really test this theory, I think he may suffer somewhat from the Robert Ludlum effect : whichever one of his books you read first is your favorite.  At any rate, though I could probably come up with some plausible reasons, The Last Gentleman is my favorite of his books, and happens to be the first I read.

It tells the story of Williston Bibb Barrett, a 25 year old transplanted Southerner and Princeton dropout, who lives at the YMCA, works as an air conditioning maintenance man in a New York City department store (throughout the book Percy refers to him, ironically, as "the engineer"), suffers periodic episodes of amnesia-inducing fugue states, and complains of feeling "hollow".  As the novel opens, he's just used his latest inheritance check to purchase an expensive telescope, through which he plans to study a peregrine falcon that has taken up roost in the city, but instead spies a young woman, Kitty Vaught, in Central Park, with whom he falls madly in love.  This turns him from a mere observer of his fellow men into a participant in people's lives.

    For until this moment he had lived in a state of pure possibility, not knowing what sort of man he
    was or what he must do, and supposing therefore that he must be all men and do everything. But
    after this morning's incident his life took a turn in a particular direction. Thereafter he came to see
    that he was not destined to do everything but only one or two things. Lucky is the man who does
    not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.

In pursuing Kitty he meets up with the rest of her family, who turn out to be acquaintances of the Barrett family from back home in Alabama. Eventually he is hired to act as a companion to the youngest son, Jamie, who has leukemia, temporarily in remission.  This brings him in contact with the family's older son too, Sutter, a doctor who is even more confused than Barrett, to the point of planning suicide.

The book's epiphanal moment comes when Will Barrett is asked to have Jamie, now dying, baptized.  Both he and Sutter are there for the sacrament, and though Percy underplays the moment, it seems to have some kind of transformative effect on the men.  The end of the book is rather ambiguous, but we are left with the impression that Will and Sutter have found some purpose in life, at least for now.

Like all of Percy's books, this one is fundamentally unsatisfying.  Will Barrett is probably the most likable of all his heroes, but he's pretty opaque and for the reader who does not share Percy's doubts, Will's epiphany seems almost random.  The simple ceremony of the baptism seems to have had more effect than any of the words of God.  Meanwhile, reader's who do share his skepticism are certain to find the conclusion a cop out.  The difficulty here lies in the attempt to reconcile existentialism and faith, a task which likely surpasses anyone's ability, since they are diametrically opposed.  At its core, existentialism is entirely inner-directed, maintaining that the fact of your own existence is sufficient in itself.  Christianity (or faith generally) is outer-directed, requiring you to believe in forces and purposes beyond yourself, with your own existence being only a small factor in a massive plan.  Percy writes as well as anyone ever has about the predicament of the doubter who wants to believe, but because he never gets entirely past the doubt, his books are all pathology and no cure.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B)

  

Websites:

Walker Percy Links:

    -ESSAY: Good Books, Bad Books: Windows into the Human Heart (Steven Garber, June 10, 2003, BreakPoint WorldView)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Percy, Walker
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "walker percy"
    -ESSAY : A View of Abortion, With Something To Offend Everybody (Walker Percy, June 8, 1981, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of BANDITS By Elmore Leonard (Walker Percy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A WORLD UNSUSPECTED Portraits of Southern Childhood. Edited, and with an introduction, by Alex Harris (Walker Percy, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Surviving His Own Bad Habits (Robyn Leary, Double Take Magazine)
    -OBIT : Walker Percy, Is Dead at 74; A Novelist of the New South  (ERIC PACE, NY Times,  May 11, 1990)
    -The Walker Percy Project
    -The Work of Walker Percy: Fiction and Philosophy : Feature essays and interviews on and by Walker Percy
    -Walker Percy (1916 - 1990) (The Internet Public Library, Online Literary Criticism Collection)
    -PROFILE : MORALIST OF THE SOUTH  (Malcolm Jones, NY Times Magazine, March 22, 1987)
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Walker Percy : A Life by Patrick Samway
    -ESSAY : Walker Percy and the Christian Scandal (Marion Montgomery, First Things)
    -ESSAY : Awakenings From Narcissism:  A Quest With Walker Percy (Ronald J. Taska, M.D.)
    -ESSAY : Exploration, Travel, Tourism and the Anti-tourist: Looking for Authenticity in All the Wrong Places (Steven Alford)
    -ARCHIVES : "walker percy" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "walker percy" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "walker percy" (Mag Portal)
    -ARCHIVES : "walker percy" (Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (Robert Massie, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Lancelot (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE THANATOS SYNDROME By Walker Percy (1987) (Gail Godwin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE THANATOS SYNDROME. By Walker Percy (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of LOST IN THE COSMOS. The Last Self- Help Book. By Walker Percy (1983)(ANATOLE BROYARD, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of LOST IN THE COSMOS, The Last Self-Help Book. By Walker Percy (Francine Du Plessix Gray, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE CORRESPONDENCE OF SHELBY FOOTE & WALKER PERCY Edited by Jay Tolson (1996)(Robert Wilson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy Edited by Jay Tolson (Scott Walter, American Enterprise Institute)
    -REVIEW : of CONVERSATIONS WITH WALKER PERCY Edited by Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer (1985)( Roger Kimball, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PILGRIM IN THE RUINS A Life of Walker Percy. By Jay Tolson (Madison Smartt Bell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy. By Jay Tolson (Molly Finn, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Walker Percy A Life. By Patrick H. Samway (Robert Coles, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Walker Percy: A Life, by Patrick Samway (Matthew Carolan, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of Walker Percy : A Life (PAIGE WILLIAMS , Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Walker, Percy: A Life by Patrick Samway (Peter A. Huff, Cross Currents)
    -REVIEW : of Walker Percy : A Life (Robert Brinkmeyer, Brightleaf Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE PERCYS OF MISSISSIPPI Politics and Literature in the New South. By Lewis Baker (Robert Coles, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE HOUSE OF PERCY Honor, Melancholy, and Imagination in a Southern Family. By Bertram Wyatt-Brown (Robert Wilson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy by Jay Tolson (Molly Finn, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Physician: Walker Percy and the Moral Life of Medicine edited by Carl Elliott and John D. Lantos (Peter W. Graham, PhD, JAMA)
    -BOOK LIST : Back to the '50s :  Five favorite novels from a decade that was wilder than you think. (E.L. Doctorow, Salon)
    -BOOK LIST : Strictly Southern : THE AUTHOR OF "SOPHIE'S CHOICE" PICKS FIVE  GREAT CONTEMPORARY SOUTHERN NOVELS. (William Styron, Salon)

GENERAL :
    -The Mississippi Writers Page
    -ESSAY : MODERNISM ON THE MISSISSIPPI: THE SOUTHERN REVIEW 1935-85 (Marc K. Stengel, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE WAR WITHIN From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945. By Daniel Joseph Singal (David Herbert Donald, NY Times Book Review)

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