The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy

Rogue Male

I ended my review of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree by adding almost as an afterthought that it is very funny. I’ll start this on Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman by saying it too is very funny. It’s slapstick and absurdist at times, satirical, iconoclastic, wickedly spurting out stereotypes, and if you like your humour refined it’s got that subtle taste of a Socratic Kierkegaard at glee. I’m only an Englishman eavesdropping on this tale of Southern  gentility so for better or worse a lot has passed by me, but taking some sort of affinity with New Yorker miserableness as the nearest I can find to a stable reference point I’ll have a go at saying something about it which can be said without having a clue about the story and the importance of history in the development of The American Identity.

It’s theatrical, scenes straight from Anna Karenina, parks and gardens, actors, roles; literary, the first line of the novel beginning “One fine day in summer” reminding us of a certain autodidact in a recurrent existential fix or stuckness, and philosophical: diagonally opposite the aphorism from Kierkegaard, “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much”  in my edition is the Walker statement at the bottom of page 1, “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.”  Any doubt that we are being set up to play with existentialism are dispelled by the introduction of a seriously neurotic and cookie psychotherapist of the existentialist school a few pages later.

It’s imagistic, photographic and cinematic, something I won’t spend too much time on, except to add ‘filmy’ to filmic as it’s important: reality comes and goes mistily as if there is a fog, some thick molecular wind that is still (Percy’s own repeated motif), and the central character suffers fugues, memory confusions of the most important intensity in his quixotic wayfaring searching for he knows not what. The central character, who turns out not to be the central character (because there are no centres, certainly not in his head) has a ‘nervous condition’ which is a euphemism if ever I heard one, or rather it’s a convenient label for classifying what is inconvenient; on a lesser level it’s simply the tension between being afraid of the social and wishing to be a part of it, the sort of stuff we have all read about.

A couple of examples before I leave the filmic to show how the imagery is a vehicle for the ideas. Lots of cars carrying people described in perfect detail, usually broken down or shabby though one particularly handsome specimen of an all-American campervan, but the car you choose is the person you is, or at least it comes to reflect you; cars and junkyards, roads and metal, iron against some dried up vegetation, nature and industry kuxtaposing all the time so, for example, “ Outside in the still air, yellow as butter, the flat mathematical leaves of the aspen danced a Brownian dance in the sunlight, blown by a still molecular wind….(an) abstract, lustful molecular wind”.  Mathematical, abstract, lustful: more later.

On a different level, there’s an hilarious moment where a character is on a college campus that has just been celebrating some sort of confederate federal event that has descended or ascended into a riot, and towards him come running a group carrying  a flagpole that contains one or other of the flags. He avoids any direct lancing, but as the group turns, the arc the back of the pole makes catches him and knocks him out.

It’s about history too. Specifically, the reference points that the ‘engineer’ (the pseudo-name given to the character with the most lines) has upon the maps he carries with him are the crossed swords that mark battlegrounds from the war. Such co-ordinates provide him with a route to the past or at least to a root that may be a place where he can find what he’s grown into. Unfortunately, every place he arrives at is also the same place he leaves from immediately. He’s screamingly unable to locate anywhere, and nor is he able to settle with people who come as edges, flat, in role, members of a group: he finds the dark and dead beneath the cheery belonging of this group or that, this loyalist or that frat member. Curiously, extremely unusually, his only talent is for relating to an individual as a person. Very strangely, he seems to have some sort of ‘radar’ to connect on apurely personal level with people. Levinas or Buber would have been proud of him, but, hey, we’re supposed to be talking about the real world.

As I’ve said, the engineer isn’t the main character because the point is there are no main characters. Here comes the heavy bit, written as pompously as I can to parallel the parodic paradoxes of the text.

If he were the ‘engineer’, he would ‘be’ Wittgenstein, of course, stand for the great destroyer of philosophy who set out to do so in order that he could live an authentic, simple life. But that role is given to another ‘character’, the doctor/mortician/alcoholic Suter whose notebook was intended merely to “be rid of it, excreta, crap”. (Doctor-Mortician Walker Percy wields a scalpel). But there are no characters, just points of intersection.

The narrative tensions work to allow these points to inhabit various dialectical dynamics such as between freedom and necessity, abstraction and immanence, ‘lewdness’ and bourgeois sterility (the latter pair delightfully and comically constantly shifting face), self-enclosure and the dread of possibility. Also, of course, the doomed and preposterous pseudo-transcendent attempts to discover the final place of security, comfort and peace in this miserable world (In a line you can throw away like so much that happens in the imaginary world of this novel, the ‘engineer’ picks up a copy of Fromm’s ‘The Art of Loving’ that someone is reading: he puts it down again, remembering that it made him feel very good while he was reading it, but had absolutely no influence on his life).

Suter, a very obscure figure at first, comes into focus more and more as the novel progresses, becomes a fixation for the engineer who searches for ‘an answer’ without knowing the question . Fortunately the other ‘solid’ characters move more into the background apart from cameo roles, disperse into vagueness. I  was particularly grateful to have little more of the awful Kitty. Suter gets all the best lines, is the locus of the pertinent dilemmas, imaged particularly in a harrowing description of the flesh torn off his face in a failed suicide attempt to reveal the skull beneath. His notebook, which accompanies the latter engineer, has some good pompous words of wisdom and insight, like all pompous and wise texts, but it’s the dismissal of these which provide what meaning the novel may be striving for.

This can’t be grasped until one considers the hideous transportings of the dying man-child Jamie’s decay into the ravages of a horrifyingly depicted death from leukemia. As he lays dying, various ideologies hover malignantly around  his body and soul. The dehumanised religious consolation matches the bureaucratic ‘care’ of hospitalisation. Distant voices vibrate with platitudes. His ending is grotesque and foul, much different from  anything in the rest of the novel, more real if you like, the end point, the bringing home of the body in question. It also brings together the nature of a lewd Christendom that has become more pornographic the deeper it encloses itself in respectabilities, histories, pseudo-identity.

The book finishes on a supremely optimistic note, one that gave me a joy transcending the laughter of humour.

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