The last chapter of The Last Gentleman is a mad rush toward…what? Barrett picks himself up after a post-football game assault and heads off to home, without money or Kitty or his memory. Percy dials up the wandering and has some fun with Barrett’s condition as he remembers and mis-remebers people and events. Yet harsh and sad moments are vividly detailed, such as the remembrance of the hour of his father’s suicide, and the re-connection with Jamie Vaught, who is now sick in a New Mexico hospital, covered with lesions.
Sutter Vaught’s journal is used well as a device in the novel; wonder how much of it is Percy’s own. It is a record of pathology and family, one of the weirder documents to appear in fiction, and it deserves more attention.
One of the questions one carries throughout The Last Gentleman is whether or not Will Barrett has friends among the Vaught family. The attachment to the dying Jamie Vaught is noticed more by others than Barrett himself; Kitty seems aloof despite her pledged love; Rita acts smart and wise until her ex-husband Sutter Vaught shows up and then they succumb to bickering. The parents Vaught are comic buffoon types, unaware of the youthful drama(s) surrounding their estate.
Barrett is most disturbing and disturbed when he is left alone, and Percy chose to show Barrett in his best form when in conversation with others (Kitty excepted). The southern bonds that brought the Vaughts and Barrett together in New York City seem useless in Georgia; there is little foreshadowing apparent, and Barrett’s undoing will likely be a mess.
I don’t remember my first encounter with a Catholic nun; I doubt it was anything like Will Barrett’s encounter with Sister Val (Vaught).
She didn’t laugh but went on gazing past him at the golfers. Her musing absent-mindedness, he reckoned, was one of the little eccentricites nuns permitted themselves. He had never spoken to a nun. But perhaps she was not a proper nun after all, wearing as she did not a proper habit but a black skirt and blouse and a little cap-and-veil business. But beyond a doubt she was a Vaught, though a somewhat plumpish bad-complexioned potato-fed Vaught. Her wrist was broad and white as milk and simple: it was easy for him to imagine that if it was cut through it would show not tendon and bone but a homogenous nun-substance.
from Chapter 4, Part 5 of Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman
A lazy glance at the available Walker Percy criticism finds him often linked with other Southern writers, and most often hitched with Flannery O’Connor. That union doesn’t hold for me; while both write the wicked and wry, O’Connor strikes me as more garish and lurid–in good ways–while Percy’s humor tends to the deadpan side of the dial; plus, he will slow to build a scene, whereas O’Connor seems to get right to it.
If I were to write big on Percy’s The Last Gentleman I’d juxtapose it with Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Both were released in 1966, both were second novels, both feature extended road journeys, and both, today, seem honest records of life and lifestyles of respective coasts.
Oedipa’s trip, down-up-and down again California, and Barrett’s lollygagging around the coast from New York City to Georgia in a trailer truck, both seem to me searching tales of what fickle people call personal growth and experience. Oedipa is the sharper more confident of the two, while Barrett’s sexual shyness doesn’t preclude him from honest assessments of encounters.
I know Lot 49 better than Gentleman, but I’m certain a good work could be done on both–just in time for their respective 50th anniversaries.
Parodies abound in Chapter 3 of The Last Gentleman when Will Barrett hooks up with pseudo-negro Forney Aiken–Aiken is a white photographer done up in shoe polish to blend in with his subjects. A reader is gifted with Huck and Jim type-banter, Levittown PA’s shady real estate practices, and the bizarre story of John Howard Griffin, white author (in blackface) of Black Like Me, a book some took as serious reporting in the 1960s.
Percy pokes fun at white sensibilities of the south, a brave thing to do in 1966, Gentleman‘s publication year. Barrett, after ditching Forney and waiting for a ride in Northern Virginia, has a terrific sequence of daydreams:
He studied his map. He reckoned he could not be more than twenty miles from Richmond. Richmond. Yes, had he not passed through it last night? As he ate Ritz crackers and sweet butter, he imagined how Richmond might be today if the war had ended differently. Perhaps Main Street would be the Wall Street of the South, and Broad might vie with New Orleans for opera and theater. Here in the White Oak Swamp might be located the great Lee-Randolph complex, bigger than GM and making better cars (the Lee surpassing both Lincoln and Cadillac, the Lil’ Reb outselling even Volkswagens). Richmond would have five million souls by now, William and Mary be as good as Harvard and less subverted. In Chattanooga and Mobile there would be talk of the “tough cynical Richmonders,” the Berliners of the hemisphere.
from Chapter 3, Part 4 of Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman
Will Barrett is a Walker Percy character that deserves more discussion and debate. Is he a misaligned mental case or a “lost soul” type doing the best he can? Percy never answers for Barrett in The Last Gentleman, never betrays Barrett’s questioning/questing mind, or his seeming afflictions of amnesia and deja vu. Trying out his love for Kitty and/or Rita, Barrett observes the following:
Here it comes again, he thought, the sweet beast of catastrophe. Am I not like Rita after all and do I not also live by catastrophe? I can smell it out every time. Show me a strange house and I can walk straight to the door where the bad secrets are kept. The question is: is it always here that one seeks one’s health, here in the sweet, dread precincts of disaster? Strange: that her disaster now enables me, that now I could love her again and more easily from the pity of it.
from Chapter 2, Part 12 of The Last Gentleman
Rereading the other 5 novels Percy wrote–not a fan of The Moviegoer, a novel I’ve read twice and remember nothing about–and going through the books in order, starting with novel number 2, The Last Gentleman. I love Percy’s deadpan humor and wonder about his place in American letters. He is so good and funny and “classic” and that he published in the era of Pynchon means he is likely thought of as a lesser talent. Not so, not with writing this good:
So well did he adapt that it always came as a surprise when two groups who got along with him did not get along with each other. For example, he had fallen in with an interracial group which met at a writer’s apartment in the Village on Friday nights. It did not strike him as in the least anomalous that on Saturday night he met with the Siberian Gentlemen, a nostalgic supper club of expatriate Southerners, mostly lawyers and brokers, who gathered at the Carlyle and spoke of going back to Charleston or Mobile. At two or three o’clock in the morning somebody would sigh and say, “You can’t go home again,” and everybody would go back to his Park Avenue apartment. One night he made the mistake of bringing a friend from the first group to the second, a Southerner like himself but a crude sort who had not yet mastered group skills and did not know the difference between cursing the governor of Virginia, who was a gentleman, and cursing the governor of Alabama, who was not. Thereafter the Siberians grew cool to him and he dropped out. Nor did he fare much better with the interracial group. On his way home from the Village, he was set upon by Harlem thugs in the park and given the beating of his life. When he related the incident at the next meeting his friends frowned and exchanged glances.