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?"