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Two Lights That Failed

ISSUE:  Spring 1981
Loon Lake. By E. L. Doctorow. Random House. $11. 95.
The Second Coming. By Walker Percy. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $12. 95.

Despite the long proclaimed death of the novel (as boring a theme as the death of the family, God, and the middle class), the last couple of years have been productive ones for American writers. Except for the usually prolific John Updike and the stingier Saul Bellow, most of America’s novelists of recognized achievement and popular success have recently published substantial works. When one adds the English language contributions of V.S. Naipaul and Nadine Gordimer, the dominant impression is that the accounts of the patient’s death have been decidedly premature.

To this impressive list E. L. Doctorow’s Loon Lake and Walker Percy’s The Second Coming can be added. Both authors came late to novelistic success. Doctorow’s first two novels received little attention, while Percy’s first, The Moviegoer, was published in 1962, when he was 45. Both have, however, achieved considerable critical acclaim and popular success since their first appearances.

Beyond these rather superficial similarities, though, Percy and Doctorow have little in common. Where Doctorow’s imagination is essentially visual, Percy is particularly attentive to human speech and the intellect. The landscape of Doctorow’s fiction is generally Northern or urban with a cast of characters dominated by sons and daughters of the ethnic working classes. (This is true, at least, of his most successful works.) Percy’s home turf is in the South, specifically the middle-class, suburban New South. Doctorow’s characters are often socially and culturally rootless, where Percy’s are ostensibly solid citizens of the leisure classes. If Doctorow’s characters suffer from political and social alienation and are likely to find themselves involved in a labor dispute or a political rally, Percy’s are psychologically and spiritually at an impasse. Their existential dilemmas are masked by—even revealed by—an obsession with movies, golf, public service, or weekends devoted to ACC or SEC sporting events. Nor could the two men’s styles be more different. Doctorow’s prose is energetic and flashy, at times facile and imitative, but at its best jagged and nervously powerful. More than most of our mainstream authors, Doctorow is a restless experimenter with structure and point of view. By contrast, Percy’s style is laconic, dissociated, and even “spacey” at times. Literary pyrotechnics are neither an interest nor a strength. If Doctorow’s prose edges toward the hysterical, Percy’s approaches the depressive.

Both novels have been widely reviewed and, rather than engaging in extended plot summary, I would like to focus on aspects of each novel which have gone largely unnoticed. Though I am an admirer of these two writers, neither Loon Lake nor The Second Coming strikes me as more than fitfully successful. For that reason I would also like to identify what I think goes wrong with each.

Loon Lake can be read on two different, though related levels. It is first of all a romantic quest for the ideal woman, the golden girl. Warren Penfield, a generous but lugubrious poet of romantic sensibilities, and Joe of Paterson, a young working-class roustabout, are in pursuit of a vision of femininity to which each was exposed as a young boy. This leads both to the mountain retreat belonging to a rich industrialist, F.W. Bennett, at Loon Lake in the Adirondacks. The obscure object of their desire turns out to be the young, beautiful, working-class mistress of Bennett, Clara Lukacs. Penfield already lives at Loon Lake when Joe arrives there, and he eventually helps Joe and Clara escape Bennett’s clutches. Where Penfield is unable to win her attention or devotion, Joe can match Clara’s intensity, and he gains her sexual favors and her grudgingly given love. After fleeing to the Middle West with Clara, Joe takes up work in one of Bennett’s automobile factories. Following a complicated set of events, including labor trouble and the murder of Joe’s friend, who turns out to be in the pay of the company against the union, Clara leaves Joe for her erstwhile protector, a mobster named Tommy Crapo. Joe lights out for California with the widow of his dead friend, but returns audaciously to Loon Lake and becomes, we learn on the last page of the novel, Bennett’s adopted son and heir to his wealth and position.

If all this sounds implausible, it is. However, that isn’t the point in a romance. Indeed, the story is not simply a 20th-century version of the quest for the ideal object; it is also a quest for legitimacy, for authorization of one’s self as counting in the social order, Freud and Otto Rank gave us a name for the individual and cultural desire—the family romance. And what Doctorow has written is an American version of this collective family romance. The son of the working class, Joe, denies his paternity and hits the road in search of his “real” father. Since America possesses no royalty or nobility, the sought-for father becomes industrialist Bennett, who eventually recognizes in Joe a worthy successor, one who possesses the daring and energy which such a father would want to see in his son.

The fascinating thing about this version of the family romance is that it inevitably turns into something else—a story of the quest for status, power, and class. So Loon Lake can also be read as a novel in the tradition tracing back to Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and represented most clearly in American fiction by The Great Gatsby, not to mention the Horatio Alger stories. It is the story of a young man from the province, albeit the urban one of Paterson, New Jersey, who seeks fame and fortune. Like Gatsby, Joe is adopted by a rich patron and changes his name. He is thus, in a sense, self-created. Unlike Fitzgerald’s character, however, Joe joins the WASP establishment and fills out his life in the intermediate reaches of power at the CIA and the State Department; or so we are told in the tight-lipped resumé which concludes the novel.

Put another way, Doctorow’s novel might have been subtitled “Why there is no Socialism in America.” For what he presents us with is the immensely seductive power of the bourgeoisie and its ability to “buy” everyone off. Joe and Penfield are of working-class origins. Indeed, Penfield originally comes to Loon Lake to kill Bennett, since Bennett owned the mine in Ludlow, Colorado, where Penfield’s father worked and from which he was fired after a labor dispute. But Penfield ends by becoming the house poet of the industrialist and the pet of Bennett’s aviatrix wife. He spends his days and nights in melancholy musings about the vision of the “ewige Weibliche.” The artist is thereby bought off by the blandishments of wealth and security while his talent atrophies. Joe and Clara are finally more attracted by status and power than they are faithful to their class origins. As a hobo and then a worker in a carnival, Joe is not without a rudimentary sense of injustice and a sympathy with the downtrodden. But his taste for what money can do leads him to cast his lot with the powerful, not the proletariat. Thus Loon Lake charts the triumph of energy over ideology, status over solidarity.

This is not to say that Bennett’s world is one which we love to hate. Ambivalence and uneasy irony toward it mark all the characters and even the elusive narrative voice. It is a measure of Doctorow’s power as a novelist that he makes Joe’s fate seem inevitable, even when upon reflection it seems implausible. Nor is Bennett a coarse capitalist of degraded sensibilities. He is a shrewd judge of people, patient in his desires and his designs, and capable of genuine grief. Near the end of the novel, the narrator wonders what the point of wealth is, why a man such as Bennett secludes himself in such a mountain retreat. He concludes that it is “the desire for isolation,” an explanation resonant with the fate of more recent figures such as Howard Hughes.

Obviously Doctorow is mining several rich fictional veins. His prose is always seductive and extremely readable. By dividing the book into short chapters, generally told from Penfield’s or Joe’s point of view, and shifting from first to third and back to the first person, Doctorow keeps things moving. Still the novel lacks the compelling power of Doctorow’s major achievement, The Book of Daniel. By the end of Loon Lake, one has the sense of something not sufficiently engaged, the existence of a fund of authorial energies which are never tapped.

One problem is perhaps with Joe. He never quite arrives at the kind of self-consciousness which will hold our interest. He is shrewd and smart but not very intelligent. Indeed, Joe reminds me of the central figure in Terence Malick’s film “Days of Heaven.” Like Joe, he possesses a certain animal attractiveness and energy but never really figures out what he’s doing. He is finally banal. Joe is certainly more reflective than Malick’s character—and the novel can do more with self-scrutiny than can the film—but his essential self remains undeveloped and one-dimensional.

Another way of saying this is to wonder how a novel can render surfaces without superficiality, banality without becoming boring. One can’t help feeling that the social-political implications of the novel demand closer observation of nuance and detail to be convincing and to create the density it needs to sustain its importance as a novel with political and social resonance. After the tortured complexities of Daniel Levin in Book of Daniel and the rich texture of life represented in that novel, after its knotty integrity which any unbiased reading will discover (the reading of Book of Daniel as a pro-Rosenberg tract is neither right nor relevant), the “mock historical” prose of Ragtime and the fascination with surfaces of Loon Lake seem a lesser Doctorow. Though the short chapters, the shifting focus, the narrative intrusions, the ironic commentaries, and the biographical summaries a la Dos Passes keep the novel in motion, they also divert and drain off tension in this case. Loon Lake has its moments and its rewards, but the reader—or at least this one—expects much more from a novelist of Doctorow’s obvious talent and past achievement.

What, however, does a person like Will Barrett in The Second Coming do when he is faced with the prospect of living the rest of his life in utter comfort, when he has all the success and advantages imaginable, at least to himself? While the political radical might see this question as a trivial one, it is nothing of the sort. It is the central question Barrett must deal with, and it is a familiar one to followers of Percy. As Dr. Johnson once observed, there’s nothing like death to concentrate the mind; and the Walker Percy who has written in one of his essays that the real question of our time is “What if the bomb should not fall?” would surely agree with Johnson.

Barrett was the protagonist of The Last Gentleman and has been resurrected here some 20 years later in his life. Reduxing characters is always dangerous and can arguably signal waning powers of invention or declining interest. This is not the case with The Second Coming, at least not the first two-thirds of it, which seem to me a distinct improvement on Percy’s previous two novels, Love in the Ruins and Lancelot. For all their local insights and enjoyments, these two novels edged toward a certain crankiness and were a bit gimmicky in their bid for attention. Most Percy fans would, I suspect, argue whether The Moviegoer or The Last Gentleman is superior and pass over the next two novels in silence.

Percy’s strengths as a novelist seem to me to lie in three areas. First, he finds in the most prosaic life a serious philosophical or religious dimension. As a master analyst of everydayness, he has a nose for the authentic problems of the American middle classes—boredom, nameless anxiety, disconnection—yet he sturdily resists what he calls “California” solutions. Barrett is a fiftyish widower, a rich and respected lawyer who enjoys playing golf and drinking and doing good works in his western North Carolina community. But like other Percy heroes, this amiable surface is just that—a surface. Barrett is in but not of his world. He and the world are slightly out of synch. Whatever else Barrett knows, he knows he “can’t go on like this.” It would be easy to pass Barrett’s problems off as the latest fictional account of a mid-life crisis, except he and Percy are out for bigger game. The Second Coming is the story of Barrett’s attempt to come to terms with two of the powers which rule our lives—-eros and thanatos, love and death.

Second, Percy can translate these existential situations into compelling fiction. His protagonists are generally intelligent, even when failures in the world’s eyes. In fact, Barrett is a mirror image of Doctorow’s Joe. Where Joe is all energy without intelligence, Will is all intelligence without energy. Rather than seeking social legitimation, Barrett tries to secede from his wife’s financial inheritance and his father’s spiritual legacy. What Barrett comes to realize is that his problem lies in the past—his father’s attempt to kill himself on a hunting trip but not before taking aim at the 13-year-old Will who was with him. This traumatic event dominates Will’s awareness in the first part of the novel; and his attempt to remember the incident, to take the full measure of its significance, progressively alienates him from his comfortably alienated self. Will he, in short, follow his father’s example and commit suicide? In some ways Will’s powerfully remembered hunt story is Faulkner’s “The Bear” retold in Percyan form, in its way as powerful as Faulkner’s original. It also provides one of the rare occasions in Percy’s fiction when he abandons his ironic, laconic style and moves to a new stylistic register. It is altogether impressive.

Third, Percy has a marvelous ear for language and eye for social nuance and detail. He is marvelously funny at times and in The Second Coming remains this side of cynicism. Indeed, one suspects that Will falls in love with Allison, a young woman who has recently escaped from an asylum and who is the daughter of Will’s old beau, Kitty Vaught, because of the way in which she tries to make sense of normal discourse in the real world. Like some contemporary Eve before the fall, she is hard put to understand what it is that people mean to say. “Have a nice day,” for instance, is a real puzzler for Allison. To Will who cannot forget anything, especially the fateful hunting episode, Allie is a godsend, since she can not remember anything after any number of electric shock treatments. The fit becomes more compelling when one remembers that in The Last Gentleman Will’s problem was amnesia. It is as though he were meeting a female version of his earlier self in The Second Coming. This is only one meaning of the novel’s title.

But if Percy is remarkably adept at establishing problematic situations, he has always had trouble extricating his characters from them convincingly. The Second Coming is no exception, and the final third of the book seems to me totally unconvincing on any terms. At a spiritual dead end and tempted by suicide, Barrett holes up in a cave so as to force God to reveal himself once and for all. If He does, then Barrett can die a believer; if God remains silent, then Barrett can die alone, and no one will be the worse for it. (One of our culture’s silliest “great” thoughts—Pascal’s famous wager about God’s existence—lies behind Barrett’s action.) Unlike his father’s suicide, Barrett’s death will have had some purpose. This is a ridiculous sort of test, as Percy realizes, for Barrett comes down with a quite unexistential tooth infection and staggers out of the cave without an answer and falls (literally) into the arms of Allison, who nurses him back to physical and spiritual health. This “fall” represents the moment at which the novel shifts/strips its gears. You ask a silly question—or a valid question in a silly way—and you get a silly answer.

Put succinctly, Will falls out of boredom and into love, a solution to his existential plight which even the most naïve of us will wonder at. Love is surely one of life’s blessings and can be a solution to all kinds of problems. But it is not the answer to the question of life’s transcendent meaning. Will begins by demanding meaning and ends by settling for happiness. Though meaning and happiness may be intimately related, the former is essentially a religious question and the latter is a distinctly secular one. Percy—or at least Barrett—has taken the easy way out by combining the two. (One wonders what the presiding presence of Percy’s early novels, Soren Kierkegaard, would have said.) The novel ends with Barrett asking rhetorically, “Could it be that the Lord is here, masquerading behind this simple silly holy face? Am I crazy to want both her and Him? No, not want, must have. And will have.” (It is not entirely clear from the passage whether the “face” in question is Allie’s or an old priest’s. The theology is dubious either way.) One learns in Sunday School that God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform, but I doubt that even He had this kind of salvation in mind.

Still, if the love which develops between Will and Allison were presented with the sharp insight Percy usually brings to his material, he just might have made this salvation through love believable. But there is nothing convincing about Allison or their love. Their sexual explorations in the greenhouse echo the sleeping bag scenes in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. And Will and Allison converse in a sort of post-modernist noble savagese, a coyly allusive word-play which borders on the ludicrous. Is this what such an intelligent man needs? Does a young woman who talks in highly elliptical word salads speak a higher wisdom to the world’s empty word? What all this shows, I suppose, is that Percy is just as tongue-tied as the rest of us when he begins exploring love between two people.

Finally one hardly knows what to make of this gratuitous resolution to such momentous problems. The last third of The Second Coining abandons all pretense to believability and sails off into a cloud-cuckoo land of late adolescent, i.e. mid-life fantasy. In cutting loose from the inconsequentiality of his life, Barrett seeks to isolate himself from the world in a sort of upper middle-class pastoral. He is Huck and Holden grown up and become a middle-aged crazy. More seriously, the really interesting and important story which the novel should tell is what happens after love has been found, how is the dark cloud of dailiness dispersed or kept at bay? No one has been very successful in presenting us with such a story, but it would surely be worth the effort. When dealing with a novelist of Percy’s skill and ironic cast of mind, one is always wary of confusing the solution with the problem. But I detect no signals, no offstage winks or glances, which indicate that Percy is anything but perfectly serious about Barrett’s choice.

Are there any grand, overarching conclusions to be drawn from this discussion of two sometimes interesting, but flawed novels? Doctorow’s Loon Lake is formally impressive, but fails ultimately to engage our minds or emotions to a sufficient degree. Percy sets out by engaging us, compelling our attention, but undermines this effect by his flight into fantasy. What this suggests is that we might hope from a novel the creation of a believable world, one which will engage our minds and emotions. This is not to call for a resurrection of the realistic, conventional novel or the romance or even the novel of ideas as such. But it is to hope that fiction will be convincing in whatever terms it sets for itself, will persuade us into the world it creates and make that world one worth joining, at least in the imagination.


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