The Second Coming

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Category: Classic
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Date Published: September 13, 1999 (First published in 1980)
Number of Pages: 368
Print Price: $12.75
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The Second Coming takes place in 20th-century North Carolina, a few states away from Percy’s birthplace in Alabama.  Like The Moviegoer, Percy’s first novel, this book is driven by a search for life’s meaning, but the obstacles in The Second Coming are darker and bound more closely to southern culture. Some of the book’s terms and premises may be alien to today’s readers. We need to know that a “covite” is someone who lives in a cove, with an implication of lower class standing. “Plagniol” is a high grade olive oil. The “Jutes and Celts and Angles and red-neck Saxons” that the book frequently mentions refer to the “nations” of the Hebrew Scriptures, the various gentile peoples who fought the Jews, the people of God. The book assumes familiarity with the once-common, Protestant belief that the gathering of Jews in Israel is a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus and a sign of imminent apocalypse.

If the book’s world feels strange, we are already on the way to understanding Will Barrett, whom we met fourteen years earlier as the young protagonist of The Last Gentleman. Now Will is a well-to-do widower, who suddenly finds all of life alien and farcical. In the middle of a game of golf he falls and then realizes he is depressed. A flashback to a shooting accident in which both Will and his father were injured offers a clue to Will’s despair, his experience of the ordinary as “death in life.” Memories of the accident are reiterated throughout the novel until it becomes clear that Will’s father deliberately shot Will and then attempted to take his own life. The father later succeeded in killing himself, and his choice makes Will’s life a living death.

In the second chapter we meet Allie, a second and equally important teller of the story. She has just escaped from a mental hospital, her memory damaged by repeated electro-shock treatments. Allie makes her way to a piece of property she has inherited only to find it burned to the ground. She makes a home there in a ruined, overgrown greenhouse. After slicing a golf ball out of bounds, Will goes in search of the ball and comes upon the greenhouse, where his shot has broken a window.

“The surprise of it was instigating to me,” says Allie. “I felt concealed and revealed.” A flashback shows us what Allie has forgotten from her time in the hospital. Just before she escaped, her doctor tried to persuade her to have more ECT. “No Buzzin,’ cousin,” she insisted. “I have to go down before I go up. Down down down in me to it. You shouldn’t try to keep me up by buzzing me up.” Allie’s words are idiosyncratic, sometimes rhyming, often metaphoric, and her voice is one of the triumphs of the novel. As she speaks we begin to see the parallel between Will’s’ search for life and Allie’s for her true self.

In the company of Jack Curl, an Episcopalian minister who acts like a handyman (the “covite”), Will realizes that he has never been “present for his life.” Curl plays “the sweaty clergyman doing good” and invites Will to a retreat with “the Montreat mafia . . .damn good guys.” Will presses Jack to confess belief in God, and Jack demurs, trying to get his answer right. “God, don’t let me blow this,” thinks Jack. “I’ve got a live one hooked.”

Will determines that he can ask the question about God, “in such a way that an answer is required,” and thus makes his plan to put God to the test. He will confine himself in a cave behind the golf course equipped with flashlight, sleeping pills and water. If God intervenes to save him, that will prove God’s existence. As Will develops this plan, his reflections provide some of the most interesting thoughts in the novel. “Could anybody but God,” he asks himself, “have gotten away with such outlandishness, contriving to have rich Long Island Episcopalians, who if they have no use for anything have no use for Jews, worship a Jew?” He waffles and then concludes, “In all honesty it was easier to believe it in cool Long Island for its very outrageousness where nobody believed anything very seriously than in hot Carolina where everybody was a Christian and found unbelief unbelievable.” Much of the novel consists of such honest and open-ended reflection, and many readers will find their own questions expressed in Will’s internal debates.

Toothache, nausea and then fear interrupt Will’s experiment. “Does fear supplant nausea as nausea supplants God?” he wonders. Passing out, he wakes to find himself crashed through Allie’s greenhouse, situated at the lower end of the cave. She feeds and bathes him. In the last of the novel’s three parts, Will lists the “names of death, which shall not prevail over me because I know the names.” In this comprehensive litany he rejects death in the guises of Christianity, God, America, unbelief, the new life in California, marriage, and a host of ‘isms’. He chooses life and pursues it in his relationship with Allie, still searching for the giver of the gift.  Meeting a Catholic priest, Will senses that the priest knows something Jack Curl does not. Continuing to claim unbelief, Will begs the priest to teach him what he knows.

A second explanation for Will’s despair is offered halfway through the novel with a diagnosis of an invented “Hausmann’s Syndrome,” a condition that causes episodes of absence and falling (like petit mal epilepsy) as well as a feeling of crazy longing. In an interview in the Paris Review, Percy, a physician, claims that the syndrome is “plausible, or at least credible.” Believable or not, this sub-plot seemed to start Will’s quest all over again, and I don’t think the detour contributed much to his essential struggle.

Though The Second Coming was published in 1980, twenty-five years after Rosa Parks kept her seat on the bus and twenty-six years after Brown vs. Board of Education, the book makes unduly lavish use of the “n” word. Percy’s characters have a variety of words for people of color but rely altogether too much on the abusive term. A writer can depict an evil system without participating in it, as many southern writers do, but I think Percy crosses that line. He frequently uses an omniscient, authorial voice to correct the characters’ delusions or opinions but never steps in to relativize their views of black people.  A writer depicting sex with as much reticence as Percy, could use a little more discretion regarding the wages of slavery.

That said, anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and seen a stranger or found the game he or she is playing suddenly meaningless, will want to discover what kind of fireworks are lit when a successful middle-aged man like Will goes crazy, searching for God, and a schizophrenic girl like Allie goes sane, finding her true self.

Publisher:
ISBN-13: 978-0312243241
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.4 x 1.1 inches


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Maggie Kast is the author of The Crack Between the Worlds: A Dancer’s Memoir of Loss, Faith and Family. Her stories have appeared in The Sun, Nimrod, Rosebud and others and essays in America, Writers Chronicle, Image and elsewhere.. She’s currently at work on a novel, I Never Knew You Had a Girl, excerpts of which have been published in anthologies on eating and sleeping from Red Claw Press. Her essay, “Symbols: Forest of Ambiguity,” is available in the online magazine, Numero Cinq, at http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2013/02/01/symbols-forest-of-ambiguity-maggie-kast/, and a flash non-fiction piece, "Ghost Alive," is at http://www.defunctmag.com/


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