The Second Coming By Walker Percy Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $12.95
RELIGIONS THAT DANGLE the idea or resurrection before believers' eyes are rarely called upon to make good on the promise. Authors ought to be more accountable, though, and when one chooses to title a novel The Second Coming he'd better deliver some sort of a revelation--epiphany if not apocalypse--before the final paragraph. But Walker Percy has years of experience in promising more than he delivers. His style exploits the worst qualities of that discredited category, the Novel of Ideas: he trots out a series of tired, baldly stated rhetorical questions and parades them in masquerade as the personal dilemmas of his characters.
His latest exercise promises to distill the crisis of the American South, of America, of the Christian faith and of modern man in the story of a Wall Street lawyer turned retired golfer. But by the time the novel reaches its own crisis Percy has launched so many conflicting ideas into the narrative--like a crazed club pro madly driving his golf balls into the fairway--that the reader has no idea which to follow, which to ignore. Will Barrett, Percy's protagonist, leads a remarkably untroubled life, driving his Mercedes 450 SEL to the golf course and then back home. Only memories disturb his endowed existence: as This Second Coming unfolds he mentally pieces together the events of a day in his early teens when, out on a hunting trip, his father tried simultaneously to kill him and to commit suicide.
This expedition in mental archeology uncovers a lot more than that memory: it brings to the surface of Barrett's mind a collection of bizarre obsessions that are apparently Percy's as well. First, there is Barrett's notion that the presence or absence of Jews is a sign of the impending return of Christ. Not that he carefully studies the evidence; he simply decides that the special history of the Jews is, well, a sign that God exists. then there's his fascination with the military life, the frontier if, the man's life, the life which (he argues) he Nazis perfected.
These idees fixes roil about in his brain and sprawl over page after page, until Percy decides to wrap it all together in one crystal-clear passage:
The name of this century is the Century of the Love of Death. Death in this century is not the death people die but the death people live. Men love death because real death is better than the living death. That's why mean like wars, of course.
...Death in none of its guises shall prevail over me, because I know all the names of death.
So decides Will Barrett, anyway. So thought Hans Castorp--a lot more eloquently--in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain: "For the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts."
As in Percy's last novel Lancelot, the reader can't be sure whether these ideas are the product of a sane mind, ideas with which the author concurs--or whether they are lunatic ravings. It's a very convenient device for Percy. He can say controversial things about war, about Nazis and Jews, about other sensitive subjects and still leave room for himself to disavow then if a reader gets too offended. But in The Second Coming, Percy introduces a new sort of character--the genuine schizophrenic, not a mouthpiece for his own questionable ideas but a true dysfunctional. Allison, a post-shock-therapy mental hospital escapee, approaches the external world as if it were a book written in a foreign language, intelligible only with the aid of a vocabulary key. she speaks with affecting hesitation, her sentences full of internal rhymes. She lives in an abandoned greenhouse. After Barrett finally short-circuits and decides to challenge God to prove his existence by descending into a cave and waiting for a sign, Allison nurses him back to health. "Lately I tend to fall down," he says. "That's all right I tend to pick things up. I'm a hoister," she responds.
Unlike Barrett, a sententious rehash of every Walker Percy hero of the past (in fact, a direct borrowing from The Last Gentleman), Allison is a new creation, and she provides what little direction there is to The Second Coming's rambling. But too often Percy seems to be writing out of habit, letting the alienation and existential ideology flow lazily down the same channels cut by his earlier novels. Some of his metaphors are meaningless, form without substance:
You're much better in your listening doctor position, legs crossed thigh hiked up as a kind of barricade, gazing down at your unlit Marlboro as if it were a Dead Sea scroll.
More often the writing is simply sloppy. Sentences are short and clipped. Percy, it seems, has an aversion to that durable punctuation standard, the quotation mark, and so throughout his novel its's difficult to follow who's saying what. Furthermore, he's acquired the annoying mannerism of changing speaker without warning or using the same pronoun successively to refer to different people. There are passages that becomes completely unintelligible:
She could go to the hardware store but she needed the word. what was the word for such a thing? If she didn't have the word, they wouldn't give it to her. Never mind. She'd look until she found it, then point. I hate to go into hardware stores and not know the name of a thing.
So do I, but who are you? asks the reader--Percy? Allison? It would be very easy for he author to clean up some of these passages--like Barrett's first-person tirades against his father, unexpectedly thrown into passages of third-person narrative--simply by substituting a name for a pronoun here, adding quotation marks there.
But even with quotation marks, Percy's dialogue can be embarrassing:
"How do you know you're not my father?"
"If I were, I wouldn't be here."
"Then why is it I seem to have known you before I knew you. We are different but also the same."
"I know. I don't know."
"Then why does it seem I am not only I but also you?"
"I don't know."
In the novel of ideas, conversations like this inevitably bode romance. sure enough, Barrett and Allison fall in love, and Percy presents this newfound love as the sign from God Barrett was waiting for.
YOU CAN'T really begrudge Percy or his hero this romance, even though it helps betray the existentialism at the heart of Percy's fiction--the whole point of Christian existentialism was the need to believe without an external sign. the conclusion Percy provides his novel with, however, is more than a philosophical cop-out. It rips out his inspirational taproot: his refusal to explain away or excuse the psychological dilemmas of his characters. It turns out, you see, that Barrett's delusions--blown up by the author into chapters' worth of prose--are caused by an imbalance in the pH of his bloodstream, easily correctable by the addition of hydrogen ions. Percy's reduction of the alienated condition of man to a manageable chemical problem mocks not only all his own best writing but also some very intelligent philosophy which he has previously raided for the substance of his own work. Perhaps the self-appointed Kierkegaard of the mint julep golf circuit would blame his intellectual forebear's disaffection on anemia.
Percy became a cult hero by writing about the emptiness at the bottom of American prosperity. That doesn't mean he can't write a happy ending if he wants to. But The Second Coming's conclusion, with Will and Allison starting their lives over together, simply ignores all of Percy's oft-repeated questions. Barrett will have his work, his wife, and God too in the bargain. All dilemmas are resolved, with no explanations.
There is no second coming in this novel. There isn't even a premonition--only the sad spectacle of a writer at the end of his ingenuity, forced to undermine the foundations of his best work out of desperation or delusion. His characters don't make a new start at all, just a very, very old ending.