The Second Coming

Michelangelo Last Judgment detail 1

I’m reposting an old review of Walker Percy’s The Second Coming. Last week I was chatting with some friends about how feelings of melancholy (or depression) seem to make the past come so vividly alive and relevant: regrets and nostalgias become so strong that one almost enjoys the pain.

Which reminded me of the opening scene in this brilliant little novel: a wealthy, healthy, middle-aged golfer lying face down in a sand trap, pounding the earth with his fist, suddenly overcome with regret and longing for a girl he had known in high-school.

Depression making the past seem alive is also present in Percy’s Love in the Ruinswhere the main character is haunted by the memory of his dead daughter. Percy’s evocation of guilt and loss is made more powerful by understatement: the narrator only mentions his lost daughter three or four times, the exact source of guilt is never described, but the loss drives his entire meltdown.    

Anyway, here is the review:

In The Second Coming (1980) Walker Percy revisits Will Barrett, the main character from his 1966 novel The Last Gentleman. Will, now forty-five, hasn’t changed much over the years: still absentminded, lonely, earnest and shy, trying to do his best and generally missing the point.

Having been left a fortune by his late wife (as well as having made plenty of money of his own as a Wall Street lawyer), Will is now comfortably retired to a mountain resort in North Carolina where he perfects his golf game, drinks with buddies, manages his wife’s charitable foundation, and quietly contemplates killing himself. He is given to fainting spells and fantasizing about a girl he knew in high school. As in The Last Gentleman, he is still haunted by the memory of his father’s suicide.

Will Barrett, at the top of the world, is depressed. Both his own life, and the lives of everyone around him, seem more farcical with each passing day. Percy, in the voice of the narrator, admits that if one man out of a hundred faints in a sand trap and decides to shoot himself, it is safe to say the he is the one with the problem, and not the other ninety-nine. But since the symptoms of depression are now the most common health problem in America, and are becoming more common with each passing year, at what point do we begin to wonder if the depressed aren’t onto something? At what point do we wonder if the “normal” people aren’t the ones with the problem?

A peculiar aspect of Will’s disease is his obsession with the Jews. To where, he asks, have all the Jews gone? What ever became of Ethel Rosenbaum, the girl he lusted after as a boy in Mississippi? Where are the Jews of North Carolina? Have they all gone back to the Holy Land? Do they know something we don’t? Barrett, who in saner moments is a nominal Episcopalian, and only at his wife’s insistence, wonders if this isn’t a sign of the Second Coming of Christ.

And so poor, clinically depressed Will Barrett devises a “scientific” experiment to prove once and for all if God exists, life is not a farce, and the Jews are in fact a sign, or if he should just go ahead and kill himself like his father before him. What he finds surprises him.

I first encountered this book at 19, and I do not think I finished it. Ten years later I picked it up in a used book store figuring I could flip through it on a plane ride, and I devoured it in a couple of hours. I was finally old enough to understand some of the questions Will Barrett asks himself both during his psychotic episodes and during his moments of clarity: how on earth did my life turn out this way? How come I never made love to that perfectly nice girl? Why did I choose one path over another? And now what do I do with myself?

And of course I still appreciate Percy’s style, for detached, almost clinical descriptions of people:

Like many Californians, she knew how to expand the particular into the general, and turn a hobby into a religion, and what’s more, to make it credible.

A former pathologist, he is particularly adept at describing disease:

Cholesterol sparkled like a golden rain in her blood, settled as a sludge winking with diamonds. A tiny stone lodged in her common bile duct. A bacillus sprouted in the stagnant dammed bile. She turned yellow as butter and hot as fire. There was no finding the diamond through the cliffs of ocherous fat. She died.

The bemused and introverted Barrett is a good vehicle for Percy’s descriptive powers as he observes his neighbors of the New South (newly-rich rednecks, Yankee tourists, unbearable Evangelicals, crack-pot atheists) while silently plotting his self-destruction.

The Second Coming, for all its obsession with suicide, is still comedy, at times almost a fairy-tale, about how we grope about for happiness in a strange, complex world.



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