Friday, November 16, 2012

Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman

Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. Originally published in 1966. 409 pages.

Walker Percy's The Lat Gentleman is a modern day Odyssey or Huckleberry Finn. It tells the story of Will Barrett, a twenty-five-year-old Southerner who has been transplanted to New York. He is a Princeton University dropout who works as an air-conditioner maintenance and refers to himself as the engineer. Will purchases an expensive telescope with inheritance money so he can study a Peregrine Falcon, but instead he spies on a young woman, Kitty Vaught, and falls for her. As a result of becoming involved with Kitty, he changes from spectator to active participant in the Vaught family. Will is commissioned to be a travel companion to Kitty's brother, Jamie, whose Leukemia is in remission. The young men are given a motor home to travel. This vehicle operates like Huckleberry's raft. There is always another adventure around the corner.

Not everything in the novel is on the surface. Will has these dizzy spells where he loses his memory. These spells seems to be connected to something that happened between him and his father. In some sense, Will is on a quest to find an answer to his problems. He begins to think Jamie's older brother can provide answers to his search. However, Dr. Vaught tells Will that he is not an answer man. He must find his own answers.

The book ends with an "epiphanal" moment. Jamie is on his deathbed. Will has been commissioned to make sure Jamie is baptized. Will, however, is not a believer. The moment is very low key, but it seems to be a transformative experience for everyone involved. The priest asks Jamie if he believes. James asks him, is it true? The priest tells Jamie, "If it were not true, then I would not be here. That is why I am here, to tell you" (404). Jamie took the sacrament.

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