A Thinking Man's Kurt Vonnegut

by Benjamin DeMott
Williston Bibb Barrett, hero of Walker Percy’s fifth novel, THE SECOND COMING (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $12.95), makes it big as a New York lawyer, marries a handsome fortune, heads home with his wife to the Southland for early retirement—and is at once overwhelmed with problems. His mate dies. Her religious adviser commences hounding him to underwrite a “total love-and-faith” retirement village as a monument to the departed. By accident a neighbor nearly shoots him dead. His daughter, Leslie, a granny-beglassed Kahlil Gibran fan who’s soft on creative relationships (“Jason and I level”) and the expression “You better believe it,” tells him he’s never been honest in his life. Mysterious forces knock him off his feet into petit mal trances. An old girlfriend, appearing from nowhere, bends herself to the enterprise of seducing him. He contracts an obsession with the circumstances of his father’s suicide. He contracts a determination to prove or disprove—by a “rational” experiment that combines a retreat to a cave, the use of advanced pharmaceutical technology, and a suicidal gamble—the existence of God. He contracts a golf slice. Yet despite these and other troubles, frustrations, misconceived projects, and flat-out disasters, The Second Coming is miles removed from tragedy. At the end of the book Will Barrett isn’t a mere survivor; he’s flourishing.
The reason is that, in a central although only gradually emerging dimension, The Second Coming is a love story. At the height of his anguish Will Barrett chances upon a young female, Allison Hunnicutt Huger by name—a lieder-singing escapee from a sanitarium for the mentally ill. Allison is less God-haunted than he, but she shares his hunger for true knowledge of the nature of our situation on earth, and of how best to endure it. And this shared longing draws them close, ultimately transforming their responses to the world’s contradictions, perplexities, trials. By falling in love they save—or at least freshen—their souls.
It’s not quite that simple, of course.
For a considerable while after first meeting Allie Huger, the hero remains in thrall to raddling religious uncertainties—and to the experiment he dreams will end them. Seething in alienation, despising the complacencies of liberated skeptics on the one hand and the hypocrisies of the unfaithful on the other—people oblivious to the difference between Christendom and Christianity—he has lost his gift for connection. “I am surrounded by two classes of maniacs,” he insists:
The first are the believers, who think they know the reason why we find ourselves in this ludicrous predicament yet act for all the world as if they don’t. The second are the unbelievers, who don’t, know the reason and don’t care if they don’t.
The only refuge he can imagine is “a search for the third alternative, a tertium quid—if there is one.” And the notion of Allie Huger as belonging to that search—opening his secret, selfimmured, God-tormented inner life to new possibilities—is slow in coming. Through pride of mind he hangs back.
As for Allie Huger: while eager from the start for lyrical union, she too has distracting preoccupations. By the time she encounters Will Barrett she has suffered years of institutional infantilization. Chapters interleaved with those detailing the hero’s troubles show us Allie Huger’s parents and analyst conniving to cheat her out of her inheritance. We watch the young woman struggling to plan an escape—writing extended instructions to her “disturbed” self about how to function on the outside, as a free being, while still partially crippled by electroshock treatment. (Only in the period just after her “buzzing” does sanitarium security ease sufficiently to permit an escape attempt.) Warily, painfully, at length exhilaratingly, in pages as delicately imagined as anything we’re likely to have for some seasons from an American fictionist, Allie conceives ambitions of her own —projects infinitely more concrete than Barrett’s, but to her not a whit less bemusing. She’s engaged in constructing a language, a home (in an abandoned greenhouse), and a personal life. She’s learning to see and hear for herself again, to hunt for clues to the insides of the human creatures with whom she’s obliged to deal, to begin once more to appreciate:
. . Have a nice day.”
“What?” She was puzzled by the way [the policeman] said it, in a perfunctory way like goodbye. But what a nice thing to say.
But he only repeated it—“Have a nice day” —and raised a finger to the place where the brim of his hat would have been. He returned to his street corner.
Her experience in supermarkets and hardware stores echoes the joys of provisioning as they exist in Robinson Crusoe; her awakening by the tinkle of a sliced golf ball through her greenhouse roof (Barrett the slicer arrives soon after) shapes a cute meet reminiscent of that between Shakespeare’s Ferdinand and Miranda. But everywhere the fascination of her own second coming edges her back from the obvious answer to the brave new longings nascent within her.
And because the elements of her recovered nature—kindness, courage, resourcefulness, candor, sweet sensuality—emerge unselfconsciously, utterly unpolluted by self-promotion, we’re impatient with the hesitations and reluctancies. How can the golfing metaphysician hang back? Granted, Will Barrett is a thoughtful chap with a splendidly savage eye for the deceitfulness round about. Granted, his spiritual aspirations deserve respect. Granted, Allie Huger has the whole of the “sane” world to master. But where are these people’s eyes? Why can’t they recognize their best hope for salvation? How much longer will he go on in her company without junking embitterment and convolution and taking her into his arms?
We’re in the presence, in short, of that surest-fire of literary things: deliciously dramatic—deliciously romantic—obtuseness.
Walker Percy enthusiasts will remember Will Barrett from the author’s second novel, The Last Gentleman, which recounts Barrett’s adventures as a twenty-five-year-old Princeton dropout whose precarious perch, after an extended psychoanalysis and much battering by amnesiac spells and other “funks,” is a room at the Y and a
janitor’s job at Macy’s. In this earlier work young Will plays a role similar to the one assigned in The Second Coming to Allie Huger—that of a vulnerable, innocent isolato adrift in settings alternately senseless and hostile. Another continuity between the Barrett books is the care taken in each to insure that their themes of innocence versus experience nowhere dwindle into banal contests between good and evil. Will Barrett, as the “young engineer” of The Last Gentleman, is impulsive and unguarded, given (like Allie Huger) to sudden rushes of affection, and altogether unsmutched by sins of knowingness and manipulativeness. But while he’s clearly meant to be understood as a person of value, he’s never presented as a person whose virtues are without defects. Time and again the young engineer’s reflections are played off against those of a strong-minded elder, a doctor named Sutter Vaught, in whose notebook on American events, personalities, and traumas warmth of affection is conjoined with chill perspicuity:
Kennedy. With all the hogwash, no one has said what he was. The reason he was a great man was that his derisiveness kept pace with his brilliance and his beauty and his love of country. He is the only public man I have ever believed. This is because no man now is believable unless he is derisive. In him I saw the old eagle beauty of the United States of America. I loved him.
By the light of this intelligence the limits of a youngster’s beamishness can be clearly made out.
And Will Barrett grown up, mordantly conscious of the sentimentality of a citizenry self-preeningly awash in “relationships,” does for Allie Huger precisely what Sutter Vaught did for him. He creates an atmosphere, that is, in which one can simultaneously value and devalue such thoughts as, say, Allie Huger’s on the niceness of “Have a nice day.” There’s no denying that Will Barrett’s creator sometimes seems on the verge of a seizure of Beatlemanic cuteness, but almost invariably he recovers, intervening with a muscular, satiric hand on the side of mind. Walker Percy is a thinking man’s Kurt Vonnegut.
What exactly does this mean? Not, certainly, that Percy’s books are clogged with complicated puzzles and conundrums of the kind Scholarship lusts to solve. Heavy weather is, to be sure, regularly made about this author in the learned journals, and he himself bears some responsibility for it. Over the years Percy has written many quirkishly brilliant essays on philosophical matters, animadverting on this or that contemporary theory of language, setting straight one or another school of empiricists, idealists, existentialists, or phenomenologists. (A volume of these essays, The Message in the Bottle, appeared in 1975.) As a matter of fact, one aspect of The Second Coming will probably inspire a further bout of brain-cudgeling among linguistic philosophers. In his essays Percy often takes as a starting point or key illustration Helen Keller’s moving account of the hour in which her teacher finally succeeded in explaining words to her—the nature of the relation between the word water and the flowing sensation over her wrist. And, as it happens, a number of the most striking chapters of The Second Coming are those in which Allie Huger, whose grasp of the nature of language has become shaky, recovers it, bit by bit, working (with Will Barrett’s help) from writing to reading to things:
“. . . You’re going to need two ten-inch crescent wrenches and a can of WD-40 to loosen the rusty bolts.”
“Give me the words.” She took out pad and pencil. He wrote: Creeper. Ten-inch crescent wrench. WD-40.
“I found the word ‘block’ in the dictionary in the library under the word ‘pulley.’ So I knew what to ask for in the hardware store.”
“I see.”
“Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.”
In my view these chapters matter chiefly as a dramatization of the truth that learning depends on connectedness–sympathy, companionship, confidence, in student and teacher alike, of a steady flow of good will. Will Barrett can teach Allie the names of tools she needs to turn her greenhouse into a home because, having known something akin to her disorientation, he can reach into it, caringly and unobtrusively, with a patience so effortless that it’s not felt as patience at all.
They stood in silence. It was not for her like a silence with another person, a silence in which something horrid takes root and grows. . . . Perhaps there was no unease with him because he managed to be both there and not there as one required. Is it possible to stand next to a stranger at a bus stop and know that he is a friend? Was he someone she had known well and forgotten?
But while sermons on Noam Chomsky and language acquisition couldn’t conceivably clarify the pertinent feelings here, they’re bound to be delivered. (“Let us, however,” runs one of the plainer sentences in a recent essay on Percy’s theory, “Let us, however, show schematically what it is that Percy has hoped to do with the argument from the irreducibly triadic structure of the Delta Factor.”) And, to repeat, part of their effect will be to obscure the real source of Percy’s ability to please people resistant (unlike Vonnegutians) to mindlessness.
That source, bluntly stated, is Percy’s power of rousing unbelief to a sense of the interest—the emotional and intellectual challenge—of belief. Not surprisingly, this power operates erratically. It’s least impressive to me when most ambitious—most driven to represent the intensity of religious states. Late in The Second Coming, in a bizarre night scene, Will Barrett ecstatically rejects a devil called death-in-life, meanwhile “laughing and hooting hee hee hooooee like a pig-caller and kicking the tires” of his Mercedes 450 SL. From now on we gather he’ll be proof against this devil’s standard guises— old and new Christendom, “isms and
asms,” “marriage and family and children,” and so on. Nobody who remembers his Kierkegaard will have the slightest difficulty comprehending these goings-on. Will Barrett is waging war on passivity, heroically renewing his struggle against despair and for the achievement of spiritual and personal reality.
But these pages are far less effective than the splendid teaching scenes with Allie—moments where, at a reduced noise level, we witness the onset of a subtler self-questioning. And there are a half-dozen other episodes in which, without fuss or tire-kicking, the reader intuits what it might be like to see the human landscape as an array of souls, to read the world as though divinity could be glimpsed by its light. I liked especially a moment in an old folks’ home during which two orderlies, a “black mammy” named Rosie, and a lad who reminds Will Barrett of Sugar Ray Robinson, comfort a terror-struck old woman they’re taking to the hospital:
“You be all right, honey,” said the black woman, her eyes absentminded, and put a black-and-pink hand on the patient’s swollen leg.
“You gon be fine, bless Jesus.”. . .
“Listen lady, I’m gerng to tell you something,” [said Sugar Ray]. (That was the difference between them, the two orderlies, that gerng, his slightly self-conscious uptown correction of the black woman.) “The doctors know what they know, but I have noticed something too. I can tell about people and I’m gerng to tell you. We taking you to the hospital in Asheville and we coming to get you Tuesday and bringing you back here and that’s the truth, ain’t that right, Rosie?” And he smiled, a brilliant whiteand-gold Sugar Ray smile, yet his eyes had not changed because they didn’t have to. The patient couldn’t see his eyes.
“Sho,”said Rosie, her eye not quite meeting Sugar Ray’s eye and not quite winking. “You gon be fine, honey.”
Percy’s hero asks himself how the “economy of giving and getting” adds up for these two speakers. He acknowledges that “even in the very act of their offhand reassurances to [the terrorstruck lady] they were probably cooking up something between themselves. . . .” Was their reason for giving that “it was so little to give and so much for her to get? . . . Does goodness come tricked out so as fakery and fondness and carrying on and is God himself as sly?” The casual assumption, here and elsewhere, that experience can be inspected for signs of Presence, gathers force from chapter to chapter; by its magic the most commonplace human exchanges are more than once metamorphosed into shadow plays of ideas.
I admit to a preference for fiction in which everyday life—ordinary scrapping for social power, ordinary civicsecular concern—comes off better than it’s allowed to by Walker Percy. And I’m prepared to admit that, while this book’s love scenes are as charming as any I’ve read since odd snippets in J. D. Salinger, they can’t be promoted as flawless: now and then affectation defaces a phrase.
But only now and then—and none but the professionally hard-nosed will be seriously discomforted. The case is, ladies and gentlemen, that we have before us a novel in which a woman of grace, beauty, talent, and wit falls believably in love with a man who’s vigorous, athletic, competent, sensitive, funny, unillusioned, and loving at his core. A novel in which, when the author steps forward as though persuaded of his capacity for consecutive thought, there’s no need to roll one’s eyes skyward or to commit (covering one’s mouth) a little cough of embarrassment. A work in which fresh imaginings occur of a wide range of human experiences—including striving for ascent from despair—and in which human kindness as well as human idiocy receives its due. I wonder what, at this hour, such a work could reasonably be called except an enchantment.