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Mercy, Mr. Percy

Lancelot by Walker Percy Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $8.95, 257 pages

By Jean A. Riesman

FOR SOMEONE who was looking forward to the next in a series of apocalyptic novels by Walker Percy, Lancelot is like a disappointing rendezvous with an old flame. It lacks the electricity of former days, the stunning moments of lucidity and passion. The one who once radicalized you and opened your eyes to new kinds of wrongness in the world now has grown conservative, even reactionary. The eyes that once held the greatest depth, the silences that bore such meaning hypnotize you and hold you for a moment, but then you wonder whether still waters run deep or stagnant.

Even with his humorous and noble style intact, Lancelot is Percy's bitterest novel, written not with the black humor of alienation but with the crotchety distemper of a curmudgeon. It does not add to Lancelot Edwarde Lamar's credibility as an existential visionary that he speaks from a private cell in a mental hospital, reflecting on his incineration of his adulterous wife and her lover on his family estate. There is a sense that Percy feels ambivalent towards a character who might be his spokesman and who might also be crazy.

Lancelot is a phenomenon comparable to Travis Bickel (Taxi Driver) as an ex-Southern gentleman. Like Travis Bickel, Lancelot takes the matter of moral response and retribution into his own hands. For them violence is the only way to take a moral stand or to make anyone pay attention.

But Percy sees the moral problem of the age not as active evil but as moral boredom, as acquiescence, as the South absorbed and homogenized into America. "There I was," Lancelot says, "forty-five years old and I didn't know whether there was evil in the world."

Tied in with the world's moral disintegration is the dissolution of the South and the Southern gentleman, a major theme in all Percy's novels. Consequently, the Southern lady has disappeared and part of Lancelot's reconstructed moral order assigns an inordinate meaning to sexual sin:

Look across the street. Do you see that girl's Volkswagen bumper sticker: Make Love Not War. That is certainly the motto of the age. Is there anything wrong with it?

Yes. Could it be possible that since the greatest good is to be found in love so is the greatest evil?.. Sin is incommensurate, right? There is only one kind of behavior which is incommensurate with anything whatever, in both its infinite good and its infinite evil. That is sexual behavior. The orgasm is the only earthly infinity. Therefore it is either an infinite good or an infinite evil.... So Sir Lancelot set out, looking for something rarer than the Grail. A sin.

When Lancelot discovers that he is not the father of his daughter Siobhan he decides his wife Margot must be destroyed by fire and brimstone, his New Orleans home Belle Isle as Sodom and Gomorrah.

Percy elevates the stuff of soap opera to a medieval morality tale. The parallels between Arthurian chivalry, Southern gentility and Christian militancy are in fact a single strand in Percy's fabric. He is a severely and sincerely Christian novelist who may speak from the fictional mouth of a potential madman to acknowledge the difference between a Cassandra and a crank.

Lancelot's sexual cosmology has a curious logic which he later applies to all history including his own. But it includes a view of women that harks back to the era of courtly love, "It is no longer possible to 'fall in love'," he says early on, "But in the future and with the New Woman it will be." His focus is too narrow: he conceives of the New Woman rather than a New Voice, or a New Person. About the position of women in his future utopia he sounds suspiciously like Stokely Carmichael:

Women? What about women? You heard me. A man, a youth, a boy will know which women are to be fucked and which to be honored and one will know who to fuck and who to honor.

Freedom? The New Woman will have perfect freedom. She will be free to be a lady or a whore.

Don't women have any say in this? Of course. And we will value them exactly as much as they value themselves. They won't like it much, you say? The hell with them. They won't have anything to say about it. Not only are they not strong enough. They don't care enough. Guinevere didn't think twice about adultery. It was Lancelot, poor bastard, who went off and brooded in the woods.

THE PROTOTYPE of the New Woman is Anna, Lancelot's next-cell neighbor, who was shocked into catatonia by brutal rape. Lancelot is able to uncoil her after six months in her reactionless fetal position by knocking in code on the wall, to which she finally responds. Stripping down communication to the most basic level is a favorite Percy theme. It is part of Lancelot's Romantic notion that Anna has transcended the violence that confronted her and thus is capable of becoming the New Woman.

Catastrophe pervades Percy's psychology. It takes an apocalyptic force to shake Lancelot out of a seven-year stupor in which his only pleasure in life was Raymond Chandler novels, and into a reevaluation of his quality of life (which moves him to such drastic action). Percy's characters often are alienated and then transformed by an experience which gives them a new perspective. He likes to describe this new ability to see the whole from a distance as a Martian perspective. Yet only after such an experience are Percy's characters capable of love, a principle solidified in his third novel, Love in the Ruins. This jolt is so essential to his conception of man in the modern world that he worries "Not what will happen if the Bomb should drop, but what if it should not drop?"

The source of the word "apocalypse" is the Greek for "revealing the hidden" and not for "destroyed." In his book of essays on The Message In The Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has To Do With The Other, Percy makes a list of new subjects for sociologists to study with catastrophe as a key to human nature:

"Suicide in San Francisco; or The End of the Frontier: Correlations between Point of Origin, Level of Education, Time of Arrival, and Number of Rotations between New York and San Francisco of 150 Suicides Who Jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge,"

or "Sadness in Suburbia: Psychiatric Profiles of Twenty-Five Housewives before and after reading Betty Friedan."

or "Scientific Transcendence and Sexual Imminence, or the Relationship of Lust to the Spirit of Abstraction: The Sexual Behavior of Twelve Scientists at Los Alamos in 1942-45, the Zenith of Transcendence of Twentieth-Century Physics Interrupted by Periodic Re-Entry into the Organismic and Cultural Imminence of Santa Fe, Los Angeles, and New York; Sexual Intercourse as Prototype of Re-entry,"

or "The Aesthetic Reversal of Depression on Commuter Trains: Before-and-After Muscle-Tension Studies on Ten Depressed Commuters Reading a Book about Depressed Commuters on a Train,"

or "How Bad Is Bad News? A Survey of the Selective Predilection of 250 New York City Subway Riders for News Stories Headlined 'War', 'Plane Crash,' 'Assassination,' 'Rape,' 'Murder,' 'Kidnapping,'"

or "Catastrophe as Catalyst in the Ontology of Joy, or Hurricane Parties on the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Camille; An In-Depth Study of Eleven Victims Who Elected to Stay Compared with Eleven Random Control Subjects Who Elected to Leave."

BUT PAPERS on these subjects are still known as novels and so Percy has set up his own experiment with one real and one artificial hurricane. The artificial hurricane is the weather created by a machine on 'Lancelot's estate for a movie in which his wife and the movie crew proclaim the "life-enhancing" power of sex between strangers stranded together during a hurricane. While the real hurricane is approaching, Lancelot learns of his wife's infidelities and has his black servant Elgin, an MIT student, secretly videotape her liaison with the director. As the hurricane hits, Lancelot ignites the house, his wife and her cohorts in it. Subsequently he is committed to the Center for Aberrant Behavior.

Lancelot tells another hurricane story as an emblem of his apocalyptic intentions and in counterpoint to the movie and all it represents. A moment of brilliant clarity hit a middle-aged couple in the face of the hurricane: they realized and said out loud how bored they were with their lives and each other, made terrific love during the storm, and "took a good hard look at each other on a sunny Monday morning and got a divorce." Lancelot's and Percy's hurricanes are meant to sweep out the artificial hurricane of false elation and superficial radicalism that do not pull out the roots of the problem. Lancelot concludes with a Christian manifesto, but as Percy says in his essay "Notes for a Novel About the End of the World,"

The novelist is less like a prophet than he is like the canary that miners used to take down into the shaft to test the air. When the canary gets unhappy, utters plaintive cries, and collapses, it may be time for the miners to surface and think things over.

Lancelot's book-length monologue is addressed not only to the reader but also to Percival, a priest-physician and boyhood friend. His name rings of both the author's own and of Lancelot's companion in the Arthurian legend. He is silent, staring at a girl out the window until the book closes with his response to Lancelot that is Percy's hope for a rejuvenated Christianity.

So you plan to take a little church in Alabama, Father, preach the gospel, turn bread into flesh, forgive the sins of Buick dealers, administer communion to suburban housewives?

Yes.

You speak!...So what's the new beginning in that? Isn't that more of the same?

You are silent...One last question--and somehow I think you know the answer... Will [Anna] join me in Virginia and will she and I and Siobhan begin a new life there?

Yes.

Very well. I am finished. Is there anything else you wish to tell me before I leave?

Yes.

Percy writes in many places of a corrupt church that is blind and obsolete. But when Lancelot has informed Christianity of the world and its realities, then, Percy believes, it will have something to tell the world.

PERCY IS NOT a stuffy, uninformed Christian. He believes that scientists are capable of exploring the "angel side" of man but that they will not find anything but biochemistry in chimpanzees. To Percy, the overriding evidence of man's spirituality is the habit of language, or the spark that led Helen Keller to conceive a universe of names and linguistic relationships out of the box of her senselessness. His writing style grows out of this attitude of detachment and rediscovery. Percy's sentences are made of very plain, when necessary very Anglo-Saxon English and his writing has the almost unnerving declarative quality of Vonnegut. He sees and writes from the detachment and rediscovery of his own life, his own apocalyptic transformation. Alfred Kazin writes that

"Walker Percy graduated from the College of Physicians at Columbia, and as an intern caught pulmonary tuberculosis from one of the many bodies on which he performed autopsies. America was just entering the war. While waiting to be admitted to the famous Trudeau sanitarium in Saranac Lake, Percy lived in a boarding house, all alone, reading and beginning to write. He says now, 'TB liberated me.'

His illness, the enforced absence from his family, the solitariness all seem to have brought out in him one of those religious personalities William James called 'twice-born'... His novels seem to be essentially the self-determination of a religious personality, of a seeker who after being ejected from the expected and conventional order of things has come to himself as a stranger in the world."

A reader unfamiliar with Walker Percy might dismiss Lancelot as a last middle-aged battle against impotence of a biological rather than an existential kind, complicated and intensified by a Southern upbringing and a Christian conversion. And next to The Moviegoer, whose main Southern Catholic character claims to feel "more Jewish than the Jews I know," and which won the 1962 National Book Award, Percy's declarative style has become self-conscious and strained. His first novel, The Last Gentleman, is his most exploratory, and a personal favorite. But after that, there is the newest song from Mr. Percy's canary.

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