THE SECOND COMING is Walker Percy's most attractive novel and perhaps his best. His last two novels were brilliant but somewhat gimmicky: In Love in the Ruins, there was a science-fiction apocalypse complete with a fantastic manchine and warring survivors, and in Lancelot, both allegory and a trickily indirect method of narration. In The Second Coming, his fifth novel, he returns to the mode of his first two, but carries it a further stage.
The return and progression are literal in that The Second Coming is a sequel to The Last Gentleman (1969), Percy's second novel, and continues the story of Will Barrett. More significantly, it goes beyond all the earlier books in that it shows the hero undergoing a more definite and positive change: Will exercise the Hamlet -ghost of his father, which beckons him to suicide, and finds rebirth and love with a young woman who has escaped from a mental institution. At the end he is determined to pursue his quest both for love and for religious truth, as he thinks of his girl and looks at a foolish old Anglican priest:
"His heart leapt with a secret joy. What is it I want from her and him, he wondered, not only want but must have? Is she a gift and therefore a sign of a giver? Could it be that the Lord is here, masquerading behind this simple silly holy face? Am I crazy to want both, her and Him? No, not want, must have. And will have."
To make so happy -- or at least hopeful -- an ending convincing without evasion or compromise is no mean achievement. The Last Gentleman began with Will living in New York after dropping out from Princeton, working as a "maintenance engineer" and waiting for something to happen. What happened was his invovlement (CONTINUED ON PAGE7) with the Vaught family: the dying Jamie, his sister Kitty, whom Will almost marries, and his brother Sutter, suicidal doctor and pornographer. The Second Coming picks up Will some 20-odd years later, after he has "made it" in every external sense. As a successful Wall Street lawyer he has made money and married a rich wife; now a widower whose "born-again" daughter is getting married, he has retired early to the beautiful resort country of North Carolina. He is an excellent golfer and has just received the local Rotary's man-of-the-year award for service to the community. As people keep telling him, he has picked up all the marbles. Nevertheless, when the novel begins he is depressed, unwell (he keeps falling down) and contemplating suicide.
Though no reference is made in The Second Coming to The Last Gentleman, the two novels are plainly complementary. They show Will before and after he "settles down" and comes to terms with the practical world; or in the language now debased by pop-psych, they show his two chief Identity Crises. To see the later Will in the light of the earlier novel is to understand him better, and the read the later novel as a continuation of the earlier is to experience a special satisfaction. Whereas he remained rather passive throughout The Last Gentleman, more spectator than actor, in this one he mades up his mind, commits himself and takes action. His father's suicide, which was mentioned but not explored in The Last Gentleman, is a central theme here. Brooding over a hunting "accident" in which his father shot him some 30 years before, and tempted by his ghost to despair and suicide, Will comes to a better understanding of himself and a rejection of his father. The argument of the father's ghost is that the only true Second Coming is the one he had: a shotgun blast in the mouth. But Will, crazy as he seems to the world and sometimes to himself, persists in lookin for the biblical signs that will foretell the Second Coming and the end of the world.
There is nothing in this novel as dramatic as the end of The Last Gentleman, with Jamie's baptism and death and the suspense about Sutter's narrowly-averted suicide, or as the hurricane and multiple adulteries in Lancelot. The scene in the cave, when Will conducts his "scientific" experiment to determine whether or not God exists is not very exciting because it can prove nothing as an experiment and its outcome seems predetermined by the symbolism (emerging from the dark cave into the greenhouse of the girl who nurses him back to life). On the other hand, the love scenes are the best of any in Percy. Allie (whose story alternates with Will's throughout the book until they are united) is the daughter of Kitty, whom Will rejects in this novel as in The Last Gentleman; electroshock treatments for Allie's mental breakdown have left her with little memory and a strangely innocent way of speaking. She and Will start over together, both crazy but creating together a sane world out of mutual need; he falls, she becomes expert in hoisting; she forgets, he remembers; she is innocent, honest, taking language literally and incapable of lying; he translates the speech of others for her and shares in the creation of a private, unsullied language for the two of them. It is a remarkable achievement for Percy to make so obviously mythic an anima -figure nevertheless a real and immensely appealing person.
If this novel is in some way more limited than its predecessors, it has a correspondingly sharper focus and sometimes greater depth. Percy has always been wonderful at rendering the precise nuances of language, gesture, clothing, and manners as they differ among regions and social classes and as they change with the times. The beautiful natural setting here -- the expensive resort country in the mountains of North Carolina -- is functional because it is inhabited now chiefly by wealthy retired people who have nothing to do but play golf and watch television. Part of Will's problem is, on the simplest level, that he has retired early and tried to content himself with this meaningless. Having learned the folly of retirement, he has decided, as the novel ends, to practice law once more on a humble and local level, and with Allie's help, to bring people out of the retirement homes and work with them in building old-fashioned cabins. Their romance is not escapist, but involves a rediscovery of language and the satisfactions of mutual aid, community, and the mastering of basic skills, as well as the experience of passionate physical love.
This novel, then, manages without sentimantality or evasion to go beyond the existential discovery of the meaninglessness of modern life and the expectation of apocalypse. Some readers may feel that, compared with its predecessors, it is not disturbing or dramatic enough; others will compare the change in mood to that between Shakespear's tragedies and his later romances and will be grateful that any hope can decently be found. I do not mean to suggest that this novel fails to confront tragic issues: it begins with Will's decision to commit suicide , and after repeated imaginary dialogues with his father's ghost, in which he becomes aware that his whole life has been an attempt to escape his father and those aspects of the South represented by him, he is finally able to throw away his father's shotgun and decide to live, live and work against retirement. In the course of this process Will is explored at greater psychological depth than any previous Percy hero.
In general, The Second Coming is less given to existential rhetoric than its predecessors, and is even sharper in specificity of observed detail. The minor characters are memorable, drawn with marvelous economy and wit. In spite of the suggestions of the title, it is an unsentimental and unrhetorical affirmation of love against death.