Monthly Archives: August 2009

‘The Second Coming’ by Walker Percy


1980,360 p.

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.

‘My Father’s Moon’ by Elizabeth Jolley

I have to admit to not being a fan of Elizabeth Jolley.  I know that she’s highly thought of:  a good reading friend whose reading judgement I trust  (and who is probably reading this post!) very much likes her. So why do I find her so off-putting?

I’ve really tried: I’ve read several of her books but find myself being repelled by the mustiness and acidity of her female characters.  They’re like a prickly heavy British overcoat: they’re like Hetty Wainthrop and Hyacinth Bucket; like a whiskery old Aunt.  Even in the books set in present time (given that she stopped writing about ten years ago), there’s a dissonance about these characters, as if they are out of time.   Her novels are often set in Australia, but there seems to be an innate Britishness about them.

I’ve seen her described as “disturbing” and perhaps this is what I’m alluding to, but I’m never really quite sure whether Jolley’s writing is deliberately subversive and edgy.  I think her dialogue is often wooden- or does that reflect the awkwardness of the characters she’s describing?  I think that her books seem to jerk around without a strong narrative thread- or is she being very clever and post-modern?  Is it bad writing?  Or good writing?  I really don’t know.

That said, I’ve enjoyed My Father’s Moon more than the other works I’ve read.  It is set in London during WW II, and for me this gives the book a unity and integrity that I can’t find in her other books.  The characters act, and feel, like 1940s characters in 1940s times.  The book is written in a number of first-person, self-contained chapters but there’s not a clear narrative arc in the way they are placed:  events happen and the reader works on making the causal and chronological links, because Jolley doesn’t.   Again- is this clever writing, or lazy?

I often sense steel in Jolley’s writing, but there’s a vulnerability in the writing in My Father’s Moon.   There’s an unresolved yearning to touch and be touched by other female friendships, and a sense of distance and apartness.  Perhaps these same qualities are there in her other books as well, because there’s a strong autobiographical element repeated in many of her works.  But I think I find it less repellent in a younger woman, coming of age in a time further back,  in a British world of London streets and air raids and prickly woollen overcoats.