You can get all A’s and still flunk life.
Walker Percy, from The Second Coming
Walker Percy was born on this day, May 28th in 1916. Only a master storyteller like Percy can hold readers captive while guiding them through ruminations about the great existential questions of life. He did it through his rich, quirky characters with whom we quickly empathize. Their plights become our own and we are drawn into their struggles to cheer them on – believing somehow that their redemption might lend hope to our own.
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :
In The Second Coming, Percy revisits the main character of his earlier novel, The Last Gentleman (1966), and finds him now rich and successful but no less alienated and dissatisfied with his life than when he was a poor, wandering nomad. Will Barrett is a middle-aged lawyer who has retired early, settling into a life of socializing, golf, and mourning his recently deceased wife. The first clue that something is seriously wrong with him occurs on the golf course, where he blacks out and has flashbacks about his childhood. He becomes increasingly ill at ease and grows obsessed with the realization that he is living in a spiritually dead culture. This realization jump-starts a half-crazy search for meaning that ultimately becomes a search for God.
Barrett is looking for some sort of sign. He cannot find answers in the usual places, as he finds believers and nonbelievers equally obnoxious; neither honest about the true state of their selves, their souls, or the culture in which they live. Insistent on finding answers to the questions that haunt him, he concocts a “foolproof” plan to determine once and for all if God is real or just an illusion. The answer he gets—his sign—and the way he gets that answer are not at all what he expected, but make for enlightening and entertaining reading.
For Barrett, finding an answer to his questions is connected with finding love in the form of Allie, a brilliant young woman who just can’t cope with existence. As Percy tells it, she “got all As and flunked life.” Allie has been placed in a mental hospital and subjected to bouts of shock therapy, which damage her memory and render her unfit to get along in the world. When she finally decides to escape from the hospital, armed with a notebook in which she has written notes to guide herself, Allie begins the long process of reintegration, a virtual blank slate trying to figure out how to navigate in this harsh and confusing world. The intersection of the lives of these two deeply alienated souls suggests that it is only in love—for God and for another person—that we find real meaning in life.
How do you live an authentic life?
L E A R N M O R E
(1916–90). U.S. author Walker Percy sets many of his stories in the American South after it has been transformed by industry and technology into a modern society. The uncertainties of an ever-changing world lead his characters to experience despair and what Percy described as malaise, a kind of listless depression.
Percy was born on May 28, 1916, in Birmingham, Ala., and grew up in Mississippi. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina in 1937 and his medical degree from Columbia University in 1941. He became ill from tuberculosis while working at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and, while recovering in an upstate New York sanatorium, he decided to become a writer. During the 1950s he wrote articles for literary, philosophical, and psychiatric journals. The first of his fiction to be published was The Moviegoer (1961), which won a National Book Award. His other novels include The Last Gentleman (1966), Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time near the End of the World (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987). He also wrote nonfiction, such as The Message in the Bottle (1975), a philosophical discussion of semantics. Percy died on May 10, 1990, in Covington, La.
Sources & Resources
“Percy, Walker,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.
Percy, Walker. Signposts in a Strange Land. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.
———. The Second Coming. New York: Picador, 1980.
Tolson, Jay. Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Walker Percy: A Documentary Film. DVD. Directed by Win Riley. New Orleans: Winston Riley Productions, 2010.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).