I hadn’t heard of Walker Percy before. This book was on the schedule of one of the online bookgroups that I follow rather desultorily, especially since I’m allegedly working on my thesis. It’s a very fast-paced online group, and by the time I’d finished the book, the conversation had moved on so I’ve been reading their archived discussion.
I was surprised when I borrowed it from the university library that there was a whole shelf of his works and commentaries. And as often happens, lo and behold, a few days later I heard him mentioned in relation to Southern American writers and placed in the same company as William Faulkner and Carson McCullers.
The book was written in 1980, when Walker Percy was 64 years old. It reprises a character from an earlier book The Last Gentleman, and with its emphasis on golf, retirement and old men’s lusts, it feels like an old-man’s book. The book itself is rather dated, with some very 1960s and 70s new-age existential and para-medical wankiness. It reads at times like a parody of the South: the grasping evangelical preacher; the nubile young girl; the sleazy, overweight Southern retirees. In its happy and rather implausible ending, the old guy gets the young, sexually voracious girl, all his old mates get to indulge their passions and lifelong interests, and the grasping relatives and preachers get their come-uppance- or at least fade into insignificance.
What really engaged me and saved the book, was the voice of Allie, a young girl who had recently absconded from a mental hospital, where she had been medicated and ECTd into passivity. We first meet her through a note that she had written to herself in a moment of lucidity, where she maps out instructions to herself for escaping from the hospital after learning that her parents had plans for her future, and her recently-inherited fortune, that would see her shuffled off into oblivion while her money was used for their purposes. She is an open, confused, strangely resilient character, and the clang associations of her psychosis takes her conversation and point-of-view into florid and yet beautiful imagery.
This is a beautifully written book, if you can get beyond the mindnumbing boredom of the golf-speak and self-satisfied ‘old man’ talk. The excursions into philosophical and religious debate are rather tedious, and it is so dated that it is almost a historical artefact of the late 20th century in its concerns and viewpoint. But it’s expanded my view of “Southern” literature, and I’m pleased to have my limited horizons on this genre widened just a little.