The happiness and serenity of the South disconcerted him. He had felt good in the North because everyone else felt so bad. True, there was a happiness in the North. That is to say, nearly everyone would have denied that he was unhappy. And certainly the North was victorious. It had never lost a war. But Northerners had turned morose in their victory. They were solitary and shut-off to themselves and he, the engineer, and got used to living among them. Their cities, rich and busy as they were, nonetheless looked bombed out. And his own happiness had come from being onto the unhappiness beneath their happiness. It was possible for him to be home in the North because the North was homeless. There are many things worse than being homeless in a homeless place--in fact, this is one condition of being at home, if you are yourself homeless. For example, it is much worse to be homeless and then to go home where everyone is at home and then still be homeless. The South was at home. Therefore his homelessness was much worse in the South because he had expected to find himself at home there.
Will Barrett is a Southerner, by way of Louisiana and Alabama, living in New York City. He is intelligent, kind, and diligent, but Percy tells us that "he looked better than he was" and that in him "something was missing." He suffers from psychological maladies both specific and abstract: he suffers from amnesia and fugue states, sometimes forgetting who he is, and more general ennui. He engages a psychiatrist, and does everything prescribed to him, but in years of therapy has made no progress. Still he wants to know, why does he feel so bad when he ought to feel good? Why do good environments make him feel bad and bad environments make him feel good? A detail shows that he suffers from the same modernism that Binx Bolling does in Percy's The Moviegoer: he visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the Velazquez looks dead and inert to him until a worker falls through a ceiling light. Suddenly it is "glowing like a jewel"--proximity to tragedy elevates life, though momentarily. For Binx it's the movies that make things real; for Will it's his telescope, that makes the bricks on the buildings across Central Park suddenly alive. Both of them have the same problem: How is it possible, they ask, to live from one moment to the next?
Though existential angst must be universal, for Percy it's always tied to geography. Will's self-imposed exile from the South is a kind of self-abegnation:
New York is full of people from small towns who are quite content to live obscure lives in some out-of-the-way corner of the city. Here there is no one to keep track. Though such a person might have come from a long line of old settlers and a neighborhood rich in memories, now he chooses to live in a flat on 231st Street, pick up the paper and milk on the doorstep every morning, and speak to the elevator man. In Southern genealogies there is always a mention of a cousin who went to live in New York in 1922 and not another word. One hears that people go to New York to seek their fortunes, but many go to seek just the opposite.
I don't feel that way--I feel quite at home in New York--but as an ex-pat Southerner I recognize some of the shape of Will's life. Hell, I finished the novel on a plane this morning headed back to New York from visiting my own ancestral home. The South is central to Will's identity; he embraces it, right down to college football and golf (Percy is the novelist of golf), but he runs from it because embracing it doesn't make him feel any better. It makes him feel worse because the embrace of it does so little.
Will's return to the South happens this way: using his telescope, he spies a beautiful girl retrieving a secret message on a bench in Central Park. He follows her to a hospital in Washington Heights (Columbia Medical School, where Percy himself once studied) to find her attending to her terminally ill teen brother, Jamie. Will ingratiates himself into the family, who turn out to be old-school Alabamians, too, fellow aliens. The family's patriarch, Chandler Vaught, employs Will to be a kind of caretaker for Jamie, and return to Alabama with them. His daughter, Kitty, falls dutifully but difficultly in love with Will. Added to these are Rita, a dutiful sister-in-law who manages Jamie's care and is suspicious of Will; Val a sister to Jamie and a sister of the cloth (she's a nun), and Sutter, a disgraced doctor and self-professed pornographer whose influence on Jamie is considered slightly less dangerous than his illness.
Left in New York by the family, Will hitches a ride with a John Howard Griffin-style photographer disguised as a black man. Together they're ambushed in Levittown by a mob thinking they've come to "bust the block," meaning sell a house to a black man. It's a weird and funny digression, meant to highlight, perhaps, the rottenness at the heart of the century of the American suburb (Levittown is America's first), and deflect the idea that racial tension is the property of the south. There's a touch of real gallantry in Will when he snaps at his companion not to give in to the mob by showing them the remaining spot of Caucasian skin. It's a nice moment, especially because Percy, like Will, often keeps his black characters at arm's length.
When Will is finally reunited with the Vaughts, the plot remains comic and frenzied, and sometimes borders on nonsense. There's an inherent but understandable silliness in the way the family hinges on Jamie's wishes: when he wants to go to school, Jamie, Will, and Kitty all enroll at the University of Alabama; when he wants to jet off to New Mexico, Will's got withdraw from school and climb in the camper van. Take a step back and you'll see how wild it is that this family invites this genial stranger into their life this way at all. But perhaps they know, like Will, that in the proximity of danger and death everything changes, even as they uphold the banners of the rectitudinous country-club South.
Will's return to the South might have played like Milkman's in Song of Solomon: an expedition to an ancestral home that allows the protagonist to discover who they are. And Will does go home: to his uncle's, who lives in a weird hermit state with his black servant, and to his childhood home, where his father once committed suicide. But he doesn't see his aunts who still live there, he sneaks in and sleeps in the attic. And it's his house--he owns it! But there are no answers there, and the same old problems return. Kitty becomes exactly the kind of old-fashioned southern sorority girl that he thinks he desires, and it repulses him. Deracination--uprootedness--hurts more when the roots are deepest, as they are in the American south, Percy tells us. The intensity of its myths and manners are no match for the modern condition.
The final section of the novel takes place outside Santa Fe, where Jamie has decamped to live out the last days of his life. As a setting, New Mexico does strange work in this novel. It means an abandonment of the dialectic of North and South, an escape to a place that has nothing to do with those old polarities. It represents the possibility, perhaps, of a kind of transcendence, and a death for Jamie on his own terms. My wife and I had our honeymoon in New Mexico. We talk sometimes about moving there for good. Our relationship to the place isn't very strong, or knowledgeable, but I understand how it functions as the idea of a place. And it's strange, the way this novel seems to share a kind of mental map with me, and which made it meaningful to me in particular. The ending, which centers on the question of whether a delirious Jamie will allow himself to be baptized by the hospital chaplain, resolves nothing, but it is funny, strange, ragged, and deeply sad.
The Last Gentleman is a novel I wish I could go on talking about. What do you make, for instance, of the fact that Will is typically identified as "the engineer," though it refers to his title as a custodial engineer in the basement of Macy's, a job he gives up in the first 100 pages? What's he making, what's he fixing? Much of it seems like it ought to fail, but it hovers somewhere outside the realm of rational sense, and does so beautifully. More than any of the other novels I've read of Percy's, it shares the kind of madcap logic and unexpected prose of The Moviegoer. It's a book that, when I was done with it, I wanted to turn it over and start it again, to prod it into some kind of structure and sense. But to do that, to make a thesis statement of it, might rob it of the brilliance of its mystery.