Review by Charles Demm, 2002
Percy, Walker. The Second Coming. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980. 360 pp., Fifth printing.
“Perhaps, he thought, even God will manifest himself when you are bent far enough out of your every day lifeline.” (p.67). The reader of Walker Percy’s novel, The Second Coming, finds its protagonist, Will Barrett, entertaining such thoughts while living out the ‘American Dream’ in the soporific suburbs of western North Carolina. By most standards Barrett lived the ‘good life’. He was a quiet, courteous man who had moved to New York at a young age to make his fortune. And he succeeded, becoming a Wall Street lawyer and marrying into old money. After the death of his wife Will was free to devote himself full time to a life of leisure, which included countless days with friends on the golf course. Therefore, the onset of visions and signs, trances and temporary physical seizures, on the golf course no less, sent Will’s life into such a tailspin that he not only grew to see the world as farcical and banal, but even led him to the brink of suicide.
Like John Updike’s fictional exploration of life among Wasp’s in New England, Percy’s novels explore human existence among affluent Southerners in contemporary American society. But also like Updike, Percy’s fiction presents the reader with more than one more critique of American popular culture and the secular humanist desire for the ‘good life’. In Will Barrett and the female protagonist Allison, we encounter late 20th century Kierkegaardean heroes searching for a purpose to life, and a purity of heart which with to find that meaning. Along the way Percy pokes fun at the ‘cheap grace’ of organized religion, as well as, breathing life into characters that embodied Kierkegaard’s three categories of life: the aesthetic, the moral, and the religious life. Will and Allison’s exemplification of the final category is revealed when they reject superficialities in favor of a transcendent element in life to provide order and meaning.The Second Coming also provides the interested reader with rich and varied descriptions of religious experiences among a particular group of Americans: white and moneyed. In humorous scenes with his doctor/golf partner Will’s many visions and hallucinations are categorized as ‘petty-mal trances’, ‘associated responses’ and ‘ideas of reference’. Left unsatisfied with these attempts to quantify his experiences, Will strikes out on his own to seek answers, which brings him into contact with Allison. Together they form an unlikely partnership and set out to live lives that are “100% human”, uninhibited by the voices in society that call them “crazy”. Percy does not withhold a description of these religious experiences, although their content lacks a particular Christian flavor. Instead, we encounter Will hearing voices and seeing images from his past that he had repressed for many years. But the profusion of experiences leaves our hero questioning the status quo in society and starts him on his path for religious meaning. Percy leaves it up to the reader to figure out whether Will and Allison are ‘saved’ or ‘crazy’.