Where he probably goes wrong, mused the engineer sleepily,
is in the extremity of his alternatives: God and not-God,
getting under women’s dresses and blowing your brains out.
Whereas and in fact my problem is how to live from one
ordinary minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.
Has this not been the case with all “religious” people?
As one of our nation’s greatest satirists, “[Walker] Percy is a writer with a message, concerned to convey a vision,” claims scholar Ralph C. Wood in The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists. “His fiction makes a withering critique of what is spiritually inane about contemporary American life, even as it also hints at a way beyond our current malaise. Yet Percy remains an artist rather than a preacher. His Catholic existentialism is couched in literary terms that appeal to the imagination more than the will. Though Percy may seek to revolutionize our way of seeing, he leaves to the church the task of proclaiming and enacting the Gospel of the world’s salvation.”
Having previously read The Moviegoer (1962), a winner of the National Book Award, I desire to further explore his fiction, even though “Walker Percy is kinda like an IPA (India Pale Ale) — an acquired taste,” as my friend Bryce quips. We are undertaking two novels that are connected by the same protagonist.
The Last Gentleman (1966)
Will Barrett is the last gentleman, a twenty-five year old wanderer from the South living in New York City with no plans for the future and detached from his past. The purchase of a telescope one summer day changes his life — for while searching for an elusive peregrine falcon in Central Park, Will accidentally spots a beautiful young woman and falls in love with her. And so begins his quest for home, identity, and the meaning of contemporary life.
The Second Coming (1980)
Will Barrett, a lonely widower, suffers from a depression so severe that he decides he doesn’t want to continue living. But then he meets Allison, a mental hospital escapee making a new life for herself, living alone in a greenhouse. What follows is by turns touching and zany, tragic and comic, as Will goes in search of proof of God and winds up finding much more.
For The Last Gentleman, I formulated questions for each chapter that are designed to provoke contemplation and conversation. Lacking chapter titles, I wrote my own within brackets below, focusing on the important locales in the story with the exception of the third chapter, which narrates Will Barrett’s transportation from the North to the South. I am intrigued that the hero’s story begins in a park and ends in a desert, as if it is a microcosm of the biblical story about our human parents, who, suddenly thrown out of a garden and into the wilderness, gained “the possibility of a happy, useful life” through “astonishment” at their true condition (385, 389).
Chapter 1 [Central Park]
With a background of Princeton University and the U.S. Army, Will Barrett is a Southern misfit in New York City, who rents a room at the Y.M.C.A., works as a humidification engineer at Macy’s, serves as “a companion to lonely and unhappy adolescents” (19), and regularly visits a psychoanalyst, who thinks he suffers from an “identity crisis” (39).
Particular: Will Barrett spends his inheritance money on a costly telescope. From his vigil in Central Park, he watches the world through “the brilliant theater of its lenses” (5). The narrator says: “Often nowadays people do not know what to do and so live out their lives as if they were waiting for some sign or other” (6). If Will uses the telescope to wait for some sign, how would he know if what he sees is truly a sign?
Universal: What is the relationship between existential disorientation and signs?
To explore this question, consider the following:
- The etymological origin of sign comes from a Latin word that means “mark” or “token.”
- The primary denotation of sign is “an object, quality, or event whose presence or occurrence indicates the probable presence or occurrence of something else.”
- Before Jesus heals an official’s son, he says to the father: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:46-54). Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees who demand signs: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:1-4). On his second coming, Jesus warns his disciples: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:23-24).
Chapter 2 [Hospital]
After the “chance event” of sighting of a girl through his telescope and falling in love, Will follows her companion to a hospital, where he meets the Vaught family, who will change the rest of his life (3, 7).
Particular: Will Barrett suffers from a “nervous condition” with symptoms that include bouts of déjà vu, “spells of amnesia,” and occasional lapses into fugue states (11-12). What does this nervous condition reveal about his spiritual predicament, and how does it affect his vision of the world? Consider specific examples, such as the hallucination at Nedick’s corner (44-46), the three-month hospitalization for amnesia (56-57), the blackout on the subway ride with Kitty (68-74), the wrong train from Pennsylvania Station (89-91), or the déjà vu of summertime in Central Park (98-101).
Universal: How are body, mind, and spirit related? Do some people feign sickness for the sake of receiving love and attention?
Chapter 3 [Trav-L-Aire]
This chapter records Will Barrett’s adventure on the road from New York City to the Golden Isles of Georgia, where he further enmeshes himself in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Vaught, their children, Kitty and Jamie, and their daughter-in-law, Rita.
Particular: Will has two salient exchanges with Kitty about love, one on “Folly Beach in old Carolina in the moonlight” (164-168) and the other in the camper during a storm (174-180). Kitty awakens Will to the various roles he may play in their relationship: “boyfriend and girlfriend, lover and father” (167); fornicator to a whore (178-179), gentleman to a lady (179-180). How do these roles induce a “values crisis” for Will (135-136)?
Universal: What roles are fitting and ill-fitting to romantic love?
Chapter 4 [Castle]
Having returned to his native South, as a companion and tutor to the infirm Jamie, Will Barrett resides with the Vaughts at their “castle fronting on a golf links” (189).
Particular: Early in the novel, we are told about an “alarming symptom” of Will: “He felt bad when other people felt good and good when they felt bad” (22). While this symptom appears in various places (46, 174), it is nowhere more obvious than when this Southerner returns to the South:
The South he came home to was different from the South he had left. It was happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic and Republican.
The happiness and serenity of the South disconcerted him. He had felt good in the North because everyone else felt so bad. True, there was a happiness in the North. That is to say, nearly everyone would have denied that he was unhappy. And certainly the North was victorious. It had never lost a war. But Northerners had turned morose in their victory. They were solitary and shut-off to themselves and he, the engineer, had got used to living among them. Their cities, rich and busy as they were, nevertheless looked bombed out. And his own happiness had come from being onto the unhappiness beneath their happiness. It was possible for him to be at home in the North because the North was homeless. There are many things worse than being homeless in a homeless place — in fact, this is one condition of being at home, if you are yourself homeless. For example, it is much worse to be homeless and then go home where everyone is at home and then still be homeless. The South was at home. Therefore his homelessness was much worse in the South because he had expected to find himself at home there. (185-186)
How much of Will’s unhappiness is related to dislocation?
Universal: What does it mean for a person to be “at home”?
Chapter 5 [Guest Ranch]
Leaving Kitty behind with the promise of marriage, Will Barrett travels through the South to the desert of northern New Mexico in order to fulfill his pledge to take care of Jamie, who has joined his dissolute brother, Sutter.
This final chapter offers the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional dividend after a somewhat tedious investment throughout the novel. Until this chapter, I questioned whether I even liked The Last Gentleman. It seemed to be the story of a nobody going nowhere. Will’s epiphany in the desert is deeply gratifying because the reader waits and waits for an epiphany, assuming it will never come. And then it does — unexpectedly, movingly. Just when I doubted the coherence of the story, the last chapter pulls everything together, which not only reflects the author’s design but, on a larger scale, providential care through the confused details of our lives. When the Catholic priest holds Jamie’s hand on his deathbed, he promises him that he will be with “our Blessed Lord and Savior” and “Our Lady,” petitioning him: “Then I ask you to pray to them for me and for your brother here and for your friend who loves you.” At this point, I cried with an immediate realization about the story’s hero: Will Barrett only recovers his health by loving a diseased and dying boy. Love heals.
I have two main inquiries. Here is the first.
Particular: Death haunts this chapter in a skull on the armoire of the Barrett family house (343-344), in raptures about suicide in Sutter’s notebook (344-346, 372-373), in the sick body of Jamie (362), and in “Sutter’s antics with the pistol” (387). Mindful that the story ends with the sacrament of baptism, a symbolic action of death and life (Romans 6:3-5), how does Sutter’s claim in his notebook — “the certain availability of death is the very condition of recovering oneself” (372) — apply to Jamie, Will, and Sutter?
Universal: How is death — not fornication — “the sole channel to the real” (372)?
Here is the second inquiry.
Particular: The novel begins with Will Barrett picking up a telescope and ends with him putting it down.
Dark fell suddenly and the stars came out. They drew in and in half an hour hung as large and low as yellow lamps at a garden party. Suddenly remembering his telescope, he fetched it from the cabin and clamped it to the door of the cab like a malt tray. Now spying the square of Pegasus, he focused on a smudge in the tail and there it was, the great cold fire of Andromeda, as big as a Catherine wheel, as slow and silent in its turning, stopped as tumult seen from far away. He shivered. I’m through with telescopes, he thought, and the vasty galaxies. What do I need with Andromeda? What I need is my Bama bride and my cozy camper, a match struck and the butane lit and a friendly square of light cast upon the neighbor earth, and a hot cup of Luzianne between us against the desert cold, and a warm bed and there lie dreaming in one another’s arms while old Andromeda leans through the night. (357-358)
Once lost in the cosmos but now found in the desert, Will retires his telescope because, it seems, he no longer waits for a sign, which, ironically, puts him in the same company as Sutter (377-378). Remembering that his analyst suggests the telescope could be “the magical means” for becoming a “seer” or “see-er,” how might we interpret Will’s decisive action (37)?
Universal: Should we wait for a sign?
At the end of the novel, I returned to the beginning again, which includes two epigraphs that provoke more questions.
If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much.
— Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Questions: How is self-forgetfulness related to human dignity? Will Barrett involuntarily forgets himself because of his amnesia and fugue states, but does he learn to voluntarily forget himself? If so, when? And what is significant about those circumstances?
. . . We know now that the modern world is coming to an end . . . at the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap the benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies . . . Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another . . . the world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean.
— Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World
Questions: How is The Last Gentleman a story about the “love which flows from one lonely person to another”?