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The Last Gentleman Revisited: A Study of the Family in the Fiction of Walker Percy and Evelyn Waugh

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“What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever else they do, confer the highest significance on ordinary things of this world…. And what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in the real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.” –  Walker Percy, “The Holiness of the Ordinary”

Given the turbulent history of Percy’s own family – his father, grandfather and possibly even his mother having all committed suicide – the role of the family in Percy’s fiction is of particular interest. After Percy’s conversion to Catholicism, as he indicates in his 1989 essay “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” the family like other aspects of the “ordinary things of this world” takes on, through the Catholic order of marriage, a special sacramental character.

In Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer, alienated from his late father’s staid yet disintegrating Southern family (as represented by his Aunt Emily), Binx Bolling visits his mother’s family in the Bayou. During his visit, their genial easy-going backwater spirit, which is free of the usual pretensions that haunt the decaying Southern gentry, helps Bolling reestablish a context for his existence. It is especially in his interaction with his dying younger half-brother Lonnie that he begins to see how his “search” might possess certain religious implications:

“Like me,” Bolling explains, Lonnie “is a moviegoer. He will go see anything. But we are good friends because he knows I do not feel sorry for him. For one thing, he has the gift of believing that he can offer his sufferings in reparation for men’s indifference to the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. For another thing, I would not mind so much trading places with him. His life is a serene business.”

Even as the family plays an important role in Bolling’s plight, however, the role of the family in The Moviegoer is even more fully realized in Percy’s next novel.

To better understand the part the family plays in The Last Gentleman – both within the narrative itself and the broader context of Percy’s fictional output – the reader would do well to examine another well-drawn fictional family – the English recusant Flytes of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. While there is no evidence that Percy consciously modeled the Vaughts on the Flytes, an investigation into the parallels between the two families – and of the solitary characters they invite into their respect folds – Charles Ryder and Will Barrett – can yield a fruitful discussion on the importance of family in Percy’s oeuvre, and especially in The Last Gentleman.

Not only do the Flytes anticipate the Vaughts in their eccentricities and struggles to navigate the modern age, but as the Flytes afford Charles Ryder a glimpse of the mysteries of life through their Catholicism, so too the Vaughts serve as Barrett’s escape from the everydayness of things which plague his character throughout The Last Gentleman.

Like all of Walker Percy’s novels, The Last Gentleman offers a study of the modern existential man adrift in the universe, reliant upon his own lights and, with a little luck, the discoveries he makes on his wandering path. But as any reader of Percy’s work knows, these elements do not make Will Barrett’s adventure necessarily unique among Percy’s protagonists. Given Percy’s penchant for seeing his characters’ existential struggle working itself out in the “holiness of the ordinary,” in this way, Mr. Barrett is very much in the same league as Bolling, Dr. Tom More, and Lancelot Lamar.

What distinguishes Will Barrett from among Percy’s other existential anti-heroes, however, is his role as an orphan. His own family is all but absent from the story. In lieu of his own family, then, Barrett strikes up a relationship with the Vaught family who adopt him as caretaker for the dying youngest son Jamie Vaught. Serving as Percy’s avatar of the New South with their consumerism and cantankerous demeanor, the Vaughts also retain vestiges of the Old South through their Catholic faith and their tight-knit, if not always functional, family dynamics. Invited into the Vaught’s world, Barrett is intrigued by the family’s members – each serving as a sort of living telescope into the deeper mysteries of life which Barrett only begins to understand at the novel’s opening.

Hearkening back to his first novel, The Moviegoer, Percy presents the Vaughts as a comic foil for the main character and as a portal into the mysteries which first fascinate him as he gazes through the telescope in Central Park – and which he senses Sutter Vaught must know something about at the end of the novel.

“Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy asserts in the beginning of Anna Karenina, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps concurring with this estimation, Percy nonetheless shows that through the family, unhappy or otherwise, the individual comes to an understanding of something more abiding than the cold comfort of his existential exertions. By presenting a comparison of the families and individual characters in The Last Gentleman and Brideshead Revisited, I intend to show how Percy taps into the same important lodestone of family dynamics which facilitates Charles Ryder’s conversion and at the same time show how The Last Gentleman, while not haunted with the same nostalgia as Waugh’s masterpiece, ought to take its rightful place besides Brideshead Revisited as a contemporary novel attempting to address the malaise of modernity from the uniquely sacramental and therefore hopeful role of the family.

Many critics see The Last Gentleman as a “hinge” novel between Percy’s first efforts at fiction and his more mature work, but through this presentation, I will show that The Last Gentleman can also stand on its own as Percy’s most fully realized fictional treatment of the family as a refuge for the existential hero and a sign of hope for the modern world.

NB: Deadline Extended!

Comments

  1. Broderick Barker says:

    Good grief, one more like that and we’ll have to start treating this like a going concern. Between this on Percy and the Kierkegaardian konversation surrounding Ms. Hill, Korrektiv is looking like its old self.

    I’m still not gonna write about Sutter, though. Not when I can crank out Chapter 2 of The Last Gentlemen Opening:

    “Can you feel the malaise?” asks Potter, his voice hinting at a gently repressed smile.

    I grin in response. “The noxious particles are swirling.”

    Potter and I are waiting in line for drinks at the reception preceding the symposium that will mark the opening of the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing at Loyola University in New Orleans. The reception is being held in the pale gray confines of the University’s Monroe Library – more specifically, in the modest open space just beside the library’s book-laden rows of dustless steel shelves. And oh yes, I can feel the malaise.

    It’s not just the efficient glare of the fluorescents overhead, making the aging academic heads of our fellow guests glow nimbus-white, and throwing every wrinkle and sag into sharp relief. Nor is it simply the tiny curls of shrimp on the table of hors d’oeuvres, shrimp that say “New Orleans” in the same way that Taco Bell’s Gordita says “Mexico.” And it’s not even the vague unease that comes from being more than a little out of place – an amateur Percyphile among professionals, with no reason for being at this little soiree besides knowing Potter. Potter knows Samway, you see, and Samway is rather a big name in these parts. Besides having been Percy’s friend, he is his biographer, and will be speaking later in the evening. I, however, am the guest of a guest, a hanger-on if ever there was one.

    No, it’s none of those things – not entirely, anyway. Ironically, the malaise is emanating chiefly from the booze set up behind the table just ahead of us. Why ironically? Because booze was one of Percy’s great weapons against the malaise, against those aforementioned noxious particles settling over the pretty exurb and carrying with them the sadness of the old dying Western world.

    Percy describes that defense in the essay he wrote on bourbon for the December 1975 issue of Esquire magazine, an issue devoted to Great American Things. The malaise is repelled by “the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime” that our hero detonates by knocking back bourbon, neat. By way of particular example, please consider this merry pair of sentences spun out by Dr. Tom More in Love in the Ruins: “Once home, light up the charcoal briquets out under the TV transmitter, which lofted its red light next to Venus like a ruby and a diamond in the plum velvet sky. Snug down Samantha with the Wonderful World of Color in the den (the picture better than life, having traveled only one hundred feet straight down), back to the briquets, take four, five, six long pulls from the quart of Early Times, shout with joy for the beauty of the world, sing ‘Finch ‘han dal vino’ from Don Giovanni and ‘Holy God We Praise Thy Name,’ conceive a great heart-leaping desire for Doris, go fetch Doris, whose lip would curl at my proposal but who was nonetheless willing, who in fact now that she thought of it was lusty as could be, her old self once again, a lusty Shenandoah Valley girl, Apple Queen of the Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester.” Instead of arriving home and thinking, “Jesus, is this it?” our man inoculates himself with Early Times bourbon and awakens to the possibility of beauty (the opera), of transcendent meaning (the hymn), and of human love (Doris). Saved by the swig!

    So then: given this spirit’s marvelous qualities, what is wrong with Potter and me? Why do we gaze so ruefully at the bottles of Jack Daniels behind the bartender? We are, after all, two drinks into the evening already – an opening round at Fat Harry’s Bar on St. Charles before setting out for the university, and a tray-borne glass of bubbly upon our arrival. And to top it off, we’re drinking free! We should be mellow, at ease with ourselves and our fellow man. But instead, the malaise.

    Here’s what’s wrong: “Cud’n Walker’s Uncle Will’s Favorite Mint Julep Receipt,” printed on Loyola University stationery, sandwiched into a clear plastic desk frame, and propped up on the table in front of the bartender beside an elegant, frosty pewter cup containing a sample for our inspection. All that’s missing is the trademark symbol to take us from an academic celebration of a great writer’s continuing legacy to the Walker Percy Tasting Bar in the gift shop of the Catholic Writers’ Museum. Stop by for a julep after picking up your Flannery O’Connor Andalusian Peacock Feather Duster or The J.F. Powers Big Book of Priest Jokes!

    Okay, that’s mean. It is, of course, not that big a deal, and somebody undoubtedly went to a lot of trouble and effort to make the julep station happen. And, to be fair, the juleps are very good. They also provide a generous dose of the “cumulative bliss” promised in the receipt. But it is worth mentioning that Percy’s original essay grants that juleps are “in the Deep South not really drunk much… Would you believe that the first mint julep I had I was sitting not on a columned porch but in the Boo Snooker bar of the New Yorker Hotel with a Bellevue Nurse in 1941?” (Made, naturally, by a bartender from New Orleans, a fellow exile in the North’s capitol city, trading on a heritage he has left behind.) And the piece concludes with the admonition that “anybody who monkeys around with gin and egg white deserves what he gets. I should have stuck with bourbon and have from that day to this.”

    And not gussied-up bourbon – just bourbon. There is, after all, no explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the icy-cold, minty sweetness of a julep, no eye-watering “recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in disoriented Western World.” In fact, it is only in Signposts in a Strange Land, the collection of Percy’s essays put together posthumously by Samway, that the receipt makes an appearance, as a postscript. And even then, it comes with a disclaimer: “Reader, in case you don’t want to knock it back straight and would rather monkey around with perfectly good Bourbon…” Which disclaimer, alas, does not appear on the framed copy at the julep station in the library. Percy monkeyed with gin and egg whites, and it cost him. Here, it’s Bourbon that is getting monkeyed with, and the malaise is circling.

  2. Quin Finnegan says:

    Looks great, Mr JOB. Looks about half finished from where I sit. The tricky thing about Percy’s “more mature work” is that for many critics, the doubled matured stuff doesn’t hold up as well as the original distillations. Which I don’t think hurts your cause at all, and perhaps even helps it. Just a thought.

    And thank the Lord in Heaven that deadline was extended. I was so caught up in that Lauryn Hill post I had to let February turn into March without finishing that damn abstract. I thought about simply writing, “The Sensuous in its Elemental Originality” with couple of quotations about Kitty and The Engineer getting jiggy in the bushes, but lost my nerve.

    • Thanks, Quin. Actually this was the Extended Euro-Dance Mix Version of the abstract. I’m cutting it tremendously for the final submission version (they only want a page). But thought I’d give y’all the good and hot of it while I had it at hand…

      Looking forward to yours and ….?

      JOB

  3. Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says:

    What’s the ratio of black Cordelias to black Valentines?

  4. James Bonaire says:

    Ha! I knew someone else had to have noticed that.

    I read Brideshead Revisited a few years ago. I just read The Last Gentleman a couple of months ago. Initially I wasn’t picking up any similarities between the two books until the end. The considerate and accepting priest in The Last Gentleman who is attempting to administer Last Rites to the dying Jamie brought me immediately to the scene with the dying father in Brideshead Revisited.

    Great article.

    • James,

      Thanks! I hope the WPC is a go this year! Had you attended in the past?

      JOB

      • James Bonaire says:

        Hi JOB,
        Sounds like it would be a good time to attend…. but this is my first hearing of it. I live up in Milwaukee, WI too, so there’s that.

        I had just recently came across Walker Percy’s writings this year. I’m a big AJ Cronin fan and a friend suggested Walker Percy to me.
        I had read The Last Gentleman…. and actually right now (wasting time at work) I’m reading the Moviegoer. 🙂

  5. James Bonaire says:

    Funny you mention that….
    I was reading his “Prince of Darkness” short stories but lost that book and then decided to start with The Moviegoer.

    I was liking it quite a bit. “The Lord’s Day” was hilarious.

  6. James Bonaire says:

    I don’t want to flood your combox with questions… so feel free to ignore or just delete this if it is out of place; but, I’m struggling with The Moviegoer like I’ve never struggled with a book before.

    Maybe it’s the authors intentions I’m struggling with or maybe I just don’t get Binx.
    Binx’s search I initially thought was supposed to be a good thing; to break away from the everydayness (Binx’s words) of life. To not let the everydayness distract from the wonder and the search. Binx mentions the malaise: that sense of disconnection with the world. I think I get that…. I’ve struggled with bouts of depression in my life. That feeling that “this really doesn’t even matter, none of this matters in the final analysis…. it’s all pointless.”
    I think that’s where Binx is going with his malaise. How, when things are going good it’s at those moments the meaninglessness of it all can come raging into your mind’s awareness.

    But is his search good? I thought so at first…. but more and more it seems like his search and his tendency to “wonder” are actually bad for him. Sure, we do feel dislocated in life… but we’re still here. God wouldn’t put us in this life if it were to be all meaningless. That seems completely contrary to Catholicism especially. The Eucharist takes the ordinary of our world (bread) and turns it into the most possibly amazing thing that could ever be conceived of (the Lord and Savior of all of humanity and everything).

    But it’s that ordinary or everydayness which Binx seems to throw aside to continue his search and to delve deeper into this wondering. As if the ordinary, for Binx, could never hold that kind of mystery (maybe I’m just not understanding Binx).

    Does this make sense??

    • No, it sure does. That’s the struggle a lot of people have with the story. It’s his first effort and his most widely celebrated. Translation: It has a secular side that non religious can understand with enough clues in the room to say that he’s at least in the ball park (even if he’s not stepping up to the plate) when it comes to the importance of religion.

      I think it all depends – and I’ve been discussing this with a friend who has pretty much the same – I mean exact same – concerns as you do. He’s a Holden Caulfield for adults one critic said. OK. Got it. But does he have a conversion in the end? That’s where my friend says the novel should go but doesn’t. Not in any pat sort of way – but think about how Waugh handled the same sort of malaise (and there are parts of BR which are very VERY Percyesque (or is it that Percy parts are very Wavian?). Why don’t we feel the same way about Binx as we do about Charles at the end? I think one answer is to say that Percy’s moral universe is either never so certain as Waugh’s – but perhaps that was only the case with his first novel – rookie jitters and all. What’s plain is that it’s a problematic novel and I think the key, one way or another, probably lies in the final pages of the novel. We’re supposed to understand something has changed between Binx and Kate – or has it?
      His next novel leaves us with the same ambiguity – Will chasing after Sutter. Then Sutter never comes back. But Will does (in the 2nd Coming).
      This may be nothing more than Percy’s nod to postmodernism – or it may be his own personal working out of the moral universe – proceeding as from composition by case study, as it were.
      So, long answer longer – i don’t think you’re in left field to raise these concerns.
      Thanks again for reading!

      JOB

  7. James Bonaire says:

    Thank you greatly for the reply, JOB. A bit of frustration and despair was welling up that I really didn’t have the slightest clue as to what was going on.

    A one point in the book there was this little bread crumb trail that made me think “ahh, this is going to foreshadow a significant change in Binx.”.
    It was when Percy introduces Lonnie. Lonnie is in a condition that I think would lead anyone to perspire at their thought “that could have been me, why him and not me, thank God not me”. But Binx reflects in passing with:

    “For one thing, he has the gift of believing that he can offer his sufferings in reparation for men’s indifference to the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. For another thing, I would not mind so much trading places with him. His life is a serene business….”

    When you come across that kind of person who truly accepts their sufferings, cheerfully, and then offers them up for the redemption of others (Salvifici Doloris)…. it’s truly the most humbling and inspiring of interactions/feelings. It’s one thing to say “oh sure, I would do that too”…. but let that person actually suffer and I would wager more often than not it’s not an acceptance that you’ll see but a begging and pleading of “help me now!” (and understandably so).

    Binx did care deeply for Lonnie (he loved Lonnie). And, maybe Lonnie had a deeper impact on Binx than I noticed. That mark it seemed to leave on Binx was a bit more delible than I had hoped.

  8. Andrew Zepeda says:

    I am very pleased to have found you good folks drinking your bourbon and delving into deeper connections in Walker Percy. I am re-reading the Second Coming at the moment. As someone in the thread above commented, I have always found it hard to connect to Binx although I love the time he spends with his mother’s family. And I have to say it never occurred to me that the Vaughts might be likened to the Flytes. There is much about family in Love in the Ruins as well. I see often in my mind’s eye, Dr. Thomas More bouncily walking home with his daughter having both been liberated and made jolly by confessing their sins.

    I have always thought Percy was the Cervantes of our time. Cervantes made an off kilter old fool into a lovable character. Percy, too, has as his every hero or anti-hero (if you feel necessary to ascribe such names to his characters) someone with some mental disability, fugue states, instability. What makes the two writers alike in my mind is the gentleness, the Christian gentleness and deep respect they show to their own characters, endearing them to us notwithstanding their handicaps which we learn in time make them more capable than those about them to see what is at stake in the everyday world. Percy suggests his somewhat addled characters find sanity in the post modern or post-Christian world through or somehow, by virtue of, their disabilities. I think Cervantes tells us it has always been that way.

    Lest I make more of a fool of myself, I will shut up and set to work learning more from you formidable bloggers. Adios

    • Andrew,

      Thanks for your input – nothing foolish about it. The Cervantes connection is a new one to me.

      Incidentally, you wouldn’t be from the proud TAC-attending Zepeda clan, wouldst thou?

      JOB

      • Andrew Zepeda says:

        JOB, Yes, I am from that clan, the eldest. But I hope I don’t show too much pride in it. Just the right amount. Too late, too early to be up but a good time to be drinking tea and recalling parts of The Moviegoer. Will have to give it a re-read. Adios, Andy

  9. James Bonaire says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I’m a recent discoverer of this blog too…. and for the past couple of days most of my work time has been searching the post history on this blog. It’s some good stuff; there’s even a photo of JF Powers with Evelyn Waugh, which was pretty cool to see.

    I have Love in Ruins to read next.

    I wanted to go back to Binx’s search…. after re-reading the part towards the end of the book where Kate and Binx are on the train ride together it slapped me right in the face that Binx needed to go on his search…. contrary to what I was thinking in my post above.

    On the train ride Kate is clearly suffering from a type of existential depression or despair. She can’t even make her own decisions because at a fundamental level in her mind she believes that there’s no meaning or purpose to anything. So for her, why do this as opposed to that. Why decide because they are both ultimately void of meaning.
    This is why she says to Binx something like “I just decided I’m religious”. She said she would believe in God if God were to say to her ‘stand over in that corner and just be nice to people who walk by you’…. because, even if it is the most trivial task possible it is still meaningful because God would exist and be the one to underwrite the meaning for that action (or any action he would tell her to do).
    Then she says to Binx that she would marry him and that all he would have to do is to tell her everything to do “stand here, not there… do this, not that”.
    And doesn’t this tie right into Will Barret’s character in The Last Gentleman when he’s saying that southern men make good soldiers because someone’s telling them what to do. The possibility of all actions that could be taken (all equally meaningless, as perceived from Will and Kate… and possibly Binx) lay out in front of Barret’s southern man leading to indecision to do anything… hence why they make good soldier’s because then they don’t need to decide, it’s decided for them.

    So, back to the train: Kate is depressed/full of despair.
    On page 170 Kate essentially paraphrases the prologue from Kierkegaard when she says to Binx “Losing hope is not so bad. There’s something worse: losing hope and hiding it from yourself” (the similarities between that and Kierkegaard in the prologue “the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair”).

    Regarding living her life: She can’t do it herself because of the absurdity of making one decision over another when both are equally meaningless (at least from her view at that moment). But Kate desperately wants to feel that meaning and purpose to her decisions (to her life)… it’s because she doesn’t feel it that she doubts it’s even there to begin with. But she knows she needs to do something there’s were her hope that Binx will just tell her.

    But Kate is on a search too, just like Binx’s search. Because neither of them are hiding the lack of hope from themselves (to quote Kate) nor are they unaware of their despair (to quote from Kierkegaard). And this is clearly a good thing. They at least know and recognize that something is severely amiss in their lives (in the world as a whole). Now, maybe there’s nothing out there for them at all (a God to give purpose to, to underwrite the meaning of the actions that make up life)…. but maybe there is.

    But they’ll never get anywhere unless they start their search. So, I was wrong (at least right now I think I was)… Binx’s search isn’t just poo-pooing the ordinary of the world. Sure, he needs to break out of the everydayness. But he’s not a Cathar. Because for Binx/Percy (and any Catholic… or whomever feels this way) what could be more amazing than being able to see the ordinary of life while being able to apprehend the sacred and mysterious in that same thing? And being convinced of this at a fundamental level in your being or mind would wipe out that despair and replace it with amazed wonderment. You need a search to at least find it out.

    Thanks again guys for letting me use your blog to express my thoughts on this book. Thanks for your blog where I’ve learned so much more about authors that I enjoy. I don’t mean to come across as a wordy windbag, it’s just that I don’t have too many other outlets to discuss this stuff with people in my life. So, it really means a lot!!
    God bless

    • Andrew Zepeda says:

      J.F. Powers with Evelyn Waugh! I would like to see that. And even more so, to have been a fly on the wall.

      My wife is a big fan of J.F. Powers. I have read but one story of his.

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