The Last Gentleman
I recently reread The Last Gentleman, as I do every decade or so. I have loved Walker Percy’s novels since I first discovered them in college, and in The Last Gentleman I am especially fond of the parts about how difficult it is to rule out the possible and how one can get through another “ordinary Wednesday morning” without becoming too “ironical” to go on living. (You can see how that would appeal to a certain kind of 19-year-old.) I like the way readers eventually realize that the short form of the protagonist’s name is a joke (Williston Bibb Barrett).
My favorite part has always been the bit about how finely tuned is our sense of how to greet people on a college campus: “He took to eyeing people on the path to see when they would speak. He judged the distance badly and said his “hi” and “what say” too soon….Spotting oncomers, fifty, sixty, seventy feet away, he began grinning and composing himself for the encounter. “Hi!” he hollered, Oh Lord, a good twenty feet too soon.” I still think of the “Oh Lord” part almost every time I pass someone on campus—which is to say, some days, hourly.
This most recent rereading revealed to me that I didn’t understand half as much about the novel as I had previously thought; it seemed more opaque to me than ever before. Every time I reread it, I focus on something new; this time, however, my ability to focus was not only disrupted by the fact that my copy of the book fell apart in my hands every 50 pages or so*, but also by my inability to filter out what was dated about the examination of racism in the novel from what is still eerily prescient about it.
I had the Trayvon Martin case and John Derbyshire’s racist rant on my mind as I read the sections about the “pseudo-negro,” who had colored himself dark to find out what life was like for a person that color in the 1960’s south, but left a patch of lighter skin as a way out. The scene in which Will Barrett understands that violence has been avoided because “he saw the pseudo-Negro rolling his sleeve down” and readers are treated to this ensuing conversation among the people who have been reassured by the “white patch” is really not dated enough:
“I thought they were blockbusters, for Christ’s sake” Jiggs was telling a newcomer. “They been here,” he assured Mort Prince. “And they come from Jersey.”
“I just want to make it damn clear I’m selling to anyone I please, regardless of race, creed, or national origin.”
“Me too! That’s just what I was telling Lou here.”
“And hear this,” said the writer, massaging his wristlet grimly. “If there is any one thing that pisses me off, it’s bigotry.”
“You’re right,” cried Jiggs. “Mr. Prince, if Mae and I didn’t have our savings in our house—listen, let me tell you! But though everyone listened, he fell silent.
The way this conversation captures the false heartiness after someone has revealed his prejudice and then tried to cover it up with all sorts of “buts” is masterful.
The parts about Will Barrett’s “radar,” how he could tune into a person and talk to them in the way that would make them most comfortable, was less comic this time through, as I focused on the race issues:
“The Vaught servants were buffaloed by the engineer and steered clear of him. Imagine their feeling. They of course lived by their radars too. It was their special talent and it was how they got along: tuning in on the assorted signals about them and responding with a skill two hundred years in the learning. And not merely responding. Not merely answering the signals but providing home and sustenance to the transmitter, giving him, the transmitter, to believe that he dwelled in loving and familiar territory. He must be made to make sense, must the transmitter; must be answered with sense and good easy laughter: sho now, we understand each other. But here came this strange young man who transmitted no signal at all but who rather, like them, was all ears and eyes and antennae. He actually looked at them.”
The Last Gentleman, published in 1968, is about a time gone by, and I would assume that most modern American readers are glad that we no longer have servants and such stereotyped ways of interacting with them (as in The Help) that we don’t even have to look at people of a certain color to assume we know all about them. But it doesn’t seem like progress to go from the assumption that darker-skinned people should be subservient to lighter-skinned people all the way over to Derbyshire’s assumption that the darker-skinned are dangerous to the lighter-skinned. And it’s a little spooky to read Sutter’s predictions, in the journal he addresses to his sister (the nun), when they’re as prescient as this one:
“Suppose you did reconcile them all, the whites and the niggers, Yankees and the K.K.K., scientists and Christians, where does that leave you….Why, cancelled out! Because it doesn’t mean anything any more, God and religion and all the rest. It doesn’t even mean anything to your fellow Christians. And you know this: that is why you are where you are, because it means something to your little Tyree dummies (and ten years from now it won’t even mean anything to them: either they’ll be Muslims and hate your guts or they’ll be middle-class and buggered like everybody else).”
Anthony Burgess, who called this novel one of the 99 Best Novels of the 20th century, says that Percy’s books “have a certain sameness, and though he’s not widely read enough to really test this theory, I think he may suffer somewhat from the Robert Ludlum effect : whichever one of his books you read first is your favorite.” I disagree, because The Last Gentleman is the first one I read, but Love in the Ruins is my favorite. Burgess does have a point, though, about the sameness: all of Walker Percy’s hero’s flail around, looking for the meaning of life and ending up in all kinds of absurd situations because of it. Percy himself said, in an interview: “I am perfectly willing to believe Flannery O’Connor when she said, and she wasn’t kidding, that the modern world is a territory largely occupied by the devil. No one doubts the malevolence abroad in the world. But the world is also deranged. What interests me as a novelist is not the malevolence of man—so what else is new?—but his looniness. The looniness, that is to say, of the “normal” denizen of the Western world who, I think it fair to say, doesn’t know who he is, what he believes, or what he is doing.”
The heart of the looniness in The Last Gentleman, it seems to me, lies in a conversation Will Barrett has with the Vaughts, the family of his friend Jamie, who is dying of leukemia. Those present include Will’s fiancé Kitty, Jamie’s older brother Sutter and older sister Val, and Sutter’s ex-wife Rita. All of them try to do something good, but Val’s work as a nun with poor black children in Tyree County and Rita’s work with “Indian kids, who are just as bad off” lets them close their eyes to what they don’t want to see; they allow themselves to quarrel over what Jamie should do and whether he should be baptized rather than listening to him. Rita starts it out, in her obliviously painful way:
“If you want to go down there, Tiger, I’ll drive the car for you and hold the ewer or whatever it is.”
“I am not going there,” said Jamie through his teeth. “And if I were, that would not be the reason.”
….Jamie groaned and the engineer reflected that there were no clear issues any more. Arguments are spoiled, Clownishness always intervenes.
Rita waited until the Thigpens drifted away and then pulled the card players closer. “If you want to know what sets my teeth on edge and I strongly suspect Jamie here might be similarly affected”—she spoke in a low voice—“it is this infinitely dreary amalgam of Fundamentalism and racism.”
“No, no, no,” groaned Jamie loudly, actually holding his head. “What do I care about that. That’s not it.”
….”Jamie wants to get away,” said the engineer. “He would like to spend some time in a new place and live a simple life without the old associations….”
“That is correct,” said Jamie instantly and soberly.
“Listen who’s telling me that,” said Rita. “What is the world have I been saying all summer? She spoke to them earnestly. Why didn’t they finish the semester and join her in her house in Tesuque? Better still, she and Kitty could go now, since credit hours were more important to men than women—everyone made a fuss over Jamie’s credit hours.”
Over and over, the serious arguments are deflected with trivia like credit hours for a boy whose life expectancy is counted in months. No one can do any good when it’s a matter of life and death because politeness demands that they look away.
That’s one of the things this novel is about—what people can look away from, and who will bear it when they can’t look away. You, as the reader, are relentlessly focused on moments like the one at Jamie’s literal deathbed: “The visitor brought a deck of cards and they played gin in the cheerful yellow sunlight. Death seemed out of the question. How can anyone play a six of clubs one minute and die the next?” But this focus is put into a larger perspective: “For the first time he saw how it might be possible for large numbers of people to die, as they die in China or Bombay, without anybody paying much attention.” And that perspective is enlarged further, until the point becomes almost satiric, although it’s ultimately part of the story. It does remind a reader of the ending of Voltaire’s Candide to read that it is important “To cultivate whatever talents one has” and “To make a contribution, however small,” but Will Barrett finally “declined to conspire with Sutter’s irony.” He begins to give up the adolescent habit of staying detached while viewing the way other people live, and starts actually living.
You know, this time around the ordinariness of Will’s decision strikes me as a bit like the dailiness of blogging. You write down what you think pretty much as you think it, however mortifying that might be years down the road, because you believe it’s important to have a stake in building something rather than stand around ironically commenting on how it could, theoretically, be done better.