As expected, scholarly research centering on the fiction and non-fiction of Walker Percy will notably increase during the next few years, and the reason for this is relatively clear: the Percy canon is, for all practical purposes, complete, thus foreclosing on the possibility that recent critical studies will have to be revised in light of future novels and essays that Percy might write and publish. Scholars hesitate about taking on full-length studies of a living author, knowing that their seemingly apodictic pronouncements might lack the definitiveness they are striving to achieve. In Walker Percy: Books of Revelations, Gary Ciuba, a recognized authority on the works of Percy, has written a complete and penetrating book that will set the standard for all future Percy scholarship.
As a Christian, Percy believed that the Incarnate Word lived on this earth and that four evangelists have told his story, which can be filled out partially by deciphering the Acts of the Apostles and the 21 letters in the New Testament. For Percy, and indeed for all Christians, the messianic story is not complete: The Revelation of John encourages Christians to keep faith in the face of persecution and times of trial because the Messiah will come again to this earth. From the island of Patmos, John, using visionary and symbolic language, unveils for his readers the cataclysmic end times in order to assure them that neither Satan nor the Roman Emperor, but God himself is the lord of history. Couching his apocalyptic vision behind the works of Daniel, Isaiah, Zechariah, and Ezekiel, John is careful, however, to hide his message from the enemies of Christianity.
Throughout his book, Ciuba not merely uses John’s revelation, but shows how thoroughly the modalities of the Christian apocalyptic tradition infuse Percy’s six novels, plus the unpublished The Gramercy Winner. In particular, Ciuba notes, the “Apocalypse of John is the supreme demonstration of Percy’s belief that language is revelatory. The word of God names what it signifies and accomplishes what it names, unites the divine speaker and human listener in the profoundest intimacy, and invites all future readers to become fellow participants in the visions of its words.” Whether one is analyzing Lonnie’s catechetical formulae in The Moviegoer, Father John’s compassionate silence in Lancelot, or Father Smith’s impassioned rhetoric in The Thanatos Syndrome, a reader is taken from the present moment and asked to consider the future, the consummation of the world that has the capability of radically altering thought and action in the present.
In his essay “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” Percy sets the guiding premise for The Gramercy Winner: “When the novelist writes of a man “coming to himself” through some such catalyst as catastrophe or ordeal, he may be offering obscure testimony to a gross disorder of consciousness and to the need of recovering oneself as neither angel nor organism but as a wayfaring creature somewhere between.” William Grey, the protagonist and a type later developed in Binx Boiling, Doctor Tom More, and Will Barrett, finds himself recovering from an illness, in this case, tuberculosis. His growing relationship with Allison Sutter ignites a fleshly passion within him, but finally does not bring William the complete satisfaction he seeks. William Grey’s catastrophic illness and dryness of spirit, suggested by his last name, are his thanatos syndrome; as he faces his death, William focuses on his own existence and seeks to awake “to a strange new world.” William finally learns that scientists do not have the last word, a notion that Percy-developed at length in his 1989 Jefferson Lecture delivered in Washington, D.C. Even though the dying are in a position to make a final synthesis, they take their secrets with them to the grave. (Epiphanies are possible, particularly through sexual awakenings, which allow both partners to enter into the mysterious regions of selfhood, where subject and object merge.) In witnessing Laverne Sutter’s death, William becomes more accountable for his own mortality. Like Jamie Sutter in The Last Gentleman, he is baptized before his own death, though the living, who are left to ponder the meaning of sacramental signs, have no palpable proof of their effects.
In this unpublished novel (and one that Percy did not want to be published, as he mentioned to me on a number of occasions), an apocalyptic pattern is depicted that Percy modifies and develops in later novels. One of the remarkable features about Ciuba’s study is that he carefully tracks the similarities and differences of each novel, showing how committed Percy was to his version of the apocalyptic tradition. In The Moviegoer, Binx, like William Grey, needs to discover a way to avoid living as a person abstracted from the complexity of his immediate surroundings; the initial shock that shakes him out of himself—or brings him back to himself—comes when he reflects on the dung beetle that he had seen during the Korean War. His aunt’s militaristic stoicism in face of the dissolution of society is a limited response, since her code of conduct reflects a too-narrow past romanticism. Binx, the archetypal lackadaisical male American, remains stagnant in a world between apocalyptic awareness and mundane drama, between the “nothing” and the “it,” as experienced by myriad others during the Eisenhower era. Though he speaks of his own Little Way (pace St. Thérèse) and bases this on the realization that everyone is dead, he probes in his own fashion whether the mind can be indifferent to signs (like Kate Cutrer and Lonnie Smith and the Jews) that give rise to an ongoing series of interpretants (to use the terminology of Charles Sanders Peirce) whose meaning is constantly deferred. Likewise in Lancelot, Lance, who drastically seeks revelations from his hospital room, attempts to read the signs of his times that will lead him out of his own mad imagination. Percy relishes his role of Hermes as he leads us through a semiotics of revelation.
Films provide for Binx the cineaste’s heavenly revelation because the movement on the screen is perfect and always the same for everyone. Films never vary from one showing to another, and one can always return years later to the same moviehouse and watch a familiar rerun and measure how much one has changed in the intervening years. In Lancelot, however, the videotape of a film crew proves that Lance, in this soliloquy in the form of a dialogue, is not a seer and that he cannot really discern the place of sex in a mockery of ideal existence. Though repetition may provide a refuge from the vagaries of life, it is only through a return to the past, to the death of one’s father, for example, as experienced by Binx and later by Will Barrett, that one can move beyond the past to an acceptance and validation of the present moment. Binx’s secretaries, like the women in Love in the Ruins, are but a dim foreshadowing of future revelations. It is the new, beyond the bend, that ultimately is revelatory. For Binx, Lonnie speaks words that live and point to the eschaton. Freed from the death of his brother Duval and his father, and fortified by the salutary words of a dying Lonnie, Binx seeks a new beginning with Kate; he rejects both comic-book sexual desires and the old regime, and follows an inner moral imperative.
For Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming (the most explicitly apocalyptic tide in the Percy canon), love, as it did for Binx and so many other Percy protagonists, will bring good news. Initially Will becomes a seer with his telescope as he surveys the world around him. As he sets out on the road, refusing to conform in his role as technician to the image of Romano Guardini’s abstracted and anonymous modern man, he gradually gains control, as his first name suggests, of his own volition. Just as the workman fell through the window at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gave a Velázquez painting a new perspective, however catalysmic the accident was to the museum-goers, Will needs to see the ordinary things of this world afresh and to situate them in credible contexts. He needs to fit the pieces of the puzzle together as Tom More finally does in The Thanatos Syndrome. In traveling from the Northeast to the Southwest, to the city of holy faith, Santa Fe, he gains an appreciation of both the country’s landscape and mindscape. As Will searches and questions, he seeks direction, given to him neither by Mr. Vaught, a comic stereotype of an old-fashioned Southerner, nor from Sutter Vaught. Likewise, Will’s great-grandfather and his uncle are but specters who demand the impossible: to act as if each day were the final one on earth. And the memory of Will’s father can only lead, as Ciuba rightly notes, to liberating thoughts of detachment and despair: “Lawyer Barrett allowed his potentially apocalyptic vision to degenerate into the tristesse of an overripe romanticism because his rarefied idealism was not balanced by a rootedness in this fallible world.” Will, the first gentleman of the post-post-modern era, and Kitty, a representative lady of the New South, never reach an intimacy one might expect of them because they carry with them the genes of their families’ past. Val Vaught, despite her limitations as a human being, provides a glimpse into the future as she seeks publicly to link language with vision. In similar fashion, Father Weatherbee in The Second Coming, Father John, and Father Smith share their visions of the sacred by saying healing words that indicate that they have peered, at one time or another, into dioramas of evil. Desperately seeking solutions to questions he does not clearly articulate, Will turns to Jamie and especially Sutter, a medical apostle-manqué who has replaced love and mystery with sentimentality, whimsicality, lewdness, scandal, and fornication, preferring to embalm what is deprived of life rather than to construct edifying relationships. Jamie’s baptism and death give Will a sense of the eschaton as he faces his own finitude. And we all wait at the end of the novel, as Sutter does, and try to figure out the spiritual dynamics of death. At that moment, Will begins to transcend his limitations by asking a question that could lead to a new level of awareness.
Later in The Second Coming, the agnostic Will learns through his version of Pascal’s wager that God cannot be goaded into playing games. He cannot summon the parousia and alter God’s ways of dealing with his people. The more Will enters into the mystery surrounding his father’s suicide, the more he realizes that his father short-circuited the divine will by determining his own apocalypse, and what is even more startling, Will’s, by an ultimate blast from his Greener—in its own way, a form of sexual intercourse. Will needs to come again to his own senses. Kitty returns to Will reincarnated as a golden girl, the daughter of Pluto who can offer no chthonian renewal. By the strangest of coincidences, her daughter Allison, the loveliest and most vulnerable of Percy’s female characters, becomes the totally unexpected incarnation of love in his life as he literally falls into her lap. And through death and regeneration the Deus Absconditus reveals himself as Deus Patefactus as these two scarred individuals create a Spenserian allegory of love. For Ciuba, the “shared word between Allie and Will testifies to a communion of consciousness between these end-of-the-world lovers.” Here the Yeatsian center does hold, as the two protagonists rediscover and renew the bonds that hold humanity together with the divine. As he meticulously interprets each of Percy’s novels, Ciuba does, indeed, bring us good news.