I started Walker Percy's The Second Coming not knowing it was set in the North Carolina mountains in the vicinity of Asheville. It was a happy accident, I thought, since I was going to Asheville in a couple weeks, and I have a well-professed fondness for reading books set in the places I'm traveling. Then I fractured some bones in my foot in a freak karaoke accident and had to cancel the trip. An accident, but not a happy one.
But that's okay, I'm not quite unraveling to the extent that Will Barrett, the protagonist of The Second Coming, is. Will, who also appeared in Percy's The Last Gentleman (I didn't know this was a sequel when I started it) is a millionaire. He plays a lot of golf. But his game has gone to seed, and he's started to have fainting spells, and he's obsessively revisiting the moment in his youth when his father shot him--maybe accidentally?--on a hunting trip. He's also convinced that all the Jews have left North Carolina, and that this is a sign of the End of Days. Will isn't sure if he believes in God, but he decides to put the question to a test: he will hide out in a nearby cave without food for weeks, and if he survives or is saved, he will believe:
Who else but a madman could sit in a pod of rock under a thousand feet of mountain and feel better than he had felt in years, so good that he smiled again and snapped hsi fingers as if he had made a discovery? I've got you both, he said aloud, God-seekers and suicides, I've got you all, God, Jews, Christians, unbelievers, Romans, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Yankes, rebs, blacks, tigers. At last at last at last. It took me a lifetime, but I've got you by the short hairs now. One of you has to cough it up. There is no way I cannot find out.
Even if the worst comes to worst, he thought with a smile, to suicide, it will turn out well. My suicide will represent progress in the history of suicide. Unlike my father's, it will be done in good faith, logically, neatly, and unobtrusively, unobtrusive even to the Prudential Insurance Company.
Will's experiment throws him into the care of Allison, a much younger woman who has recently escaped from a nearby sanitarium. She's living in a greenhouse, and spending her time scheming how to hoist an old stove through the windows.
When he landed on the floor of her greenhouse, knocking himself out, he was a problem to be solved, like moving the stove. Problems are for solving. Alone. After the first shock of the crash, which caught her on her hands and knees cleaning the floor, her only thought had been to make some sense of it, of him, a man lying on her floor smeared head to toe with a whitish grease like a channel swimmer. As her mind cast about for who or what he might be--new kind of runner? masquerader from country-club party? Halloween trick-or-treater?--she realized she did not yet know the new world well enough to know what to be scared of. Maybe the man falling into her house was one of teh things that happened, albeit rarely, like a wood duck flying down the chimney.
The Second Coming follows the same basic pattern as The Moviegoer. Will and Allie, like Binx and Kate, find each other as a revelation, mental illness finding comfort and support in mental illness. Allie's mental illness, which manifests as a strange rhyming speech pattern that only Will can understand, is not the same thing as Kate's manic-depression, but it's a degree of difference and not of kind. Will, like Binx, undergoes a kind of cosmic search that is ever only nebulously defined, and the answers come not in the form of a mystical revelation, but in the flesh-and-blood arms of another person.
But Percy is the kind of novelist who can write the same book without it seeming like the same book. The Second Coming is rich in detail and subtlety, and Will and Allie are distinctly drawn enough to feel like characters in a new story rather than a rehash of the old. And while The Second Coming never matches the excellence of The Moviegoer, it struck a special chord in me because of its insights about my home state, about which Willie says he "lived in the most Christian nation in the world, the U.S.A., in the most Christian part of that nation, the South, in the most Christian state in the South, North Carolina, in the most Christian town in North Carolina." I doubt that's true (more Christian than Alabama or Mississippi?) but I liked the way the novel explores the search for God in a place which presupposes the search is already over.
In a certain way, I identify with Percy's novels more than any others, between the religious and metaphysical subject matter and the regional specificity of the South. I'd like to read the predecessor to this novel, The Last Gentleman, about Will's youth as a Southerner living in New York, but I'm afraid it'll be too much like looking in a mirror.