The Last Gentleman (Modern Library)

ISBN: 0679602720
ISBN 13: 9780679602729
By: Walker Percy

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About this book

Williston Bibb Barrett, the last gentleman of the story, is a displaced Southerner who has dropped out of Princeton owing to a nervous condition that his psychoanalyst associates with an inability to fit into groups. While living in New York City, our wayfarer-hero falls in love with a young woman he spies through a telescope...and sets out on a cross-country odyssey in search of home, identity, and the meaning of contemporary life.

Reader's Thoughts


I have pretty mixed feelings on this one.It started out beautifully, reminding me of the first part of Winter's Tale: an early 20th century urban fantasy set in New York; a romance triggered by stealth and coincidence. But the romance was just a gateway to the rest of the novel, which alternately frustrated and charmed me. More often the former. The weak plotting and characters ultimately felt like mere devices for Walker Percy to pontificate about spirituality (immanence vs transcendence anyone?), but it never felt clear to me what exactly was the point. Nevertheless, something about Percy's writing was appealing to me. I picked up a used copy of The Moviegoer while reading this one. Though The Last Gentleman frustrated me, I'm intrigued enough to give Percy another read, somewhere down the line.

Sandra Willey

Technically should be about a 3.87. I'm glad I read it, but don't know who I'd recommend it was a book group selection. I initially thought, "Oh, no, not another Southern author with Russian literature plot advancement techniques (but wait! I must be losing my mind!) After the discussion, and after noting when it was written, and after letting it stew in its own juices a while, I think Percy demonstrates real skill at weaving in and through an almost existential quest for definition of self as well as self definition, characters with an archetypal halo just a few steps this side of Jungian, and sort of reminiscent/suggestive of Pinter and Albee (I know, different genre)


I really enjoyed this book. It was strange; the author made some interesting choices, like calling his narrator "the engineer" all the time, instead of by his name. This was odd, because all the characters called him by his name, but for the first part of the book he doesn't interact with anyone, so you don't learn his name until 50 pages in or so. Odd. (p.s. the narrator shared my surname.) There's a ton of philosophy in here, no surprise from Percy, and overall the story is mostly compelling and the characters are somewhat interesting. The middle sagged for me, though, I found myself drifting off into La La Land while reading. Barrett is a meanderer for the ages, so the plot is, well, meandering, and nothing really seems to have much gravitas. He finds himself with less than a dollar to his name, yet this doesn't bother him, and later in the book he has more money than he knows what to do with, though this doesn't seem to affect him either. And not in a "money isn't important" sort of way. Also, he sometimes seems to be deeply in love with a woman named Kitty, though at times fairly ambivalent toward her. There just seemed to be a lot of nonchalance inherent in the characters, which made me care less about what happened to them. Often I couldn't tell if the narrator was meant to be liked or pitied or if he was just meant to seem pathetic. Anyway, though, the final scene -- in fact the entire last section of the book -- is great. Barrett's doting relationship with Vaught is compelling.I liked The Moviegoer a lot more than this, but I'll keep reading Percy's stuff. He's a unique writer.


I am a Percy addict, I admit it, and a vein full of this didn't help. Percy's novels are like non-fiction disguised as fiction, which I think throws a lot of people. He has ideas, and fiction is a vehicle for them. But just like with O'Connor, you can read his books without having a clue about the author's ideas and still love them for the literature they are. Percy's turns of phrase alone make his stuff worth reading. And boy, did this one get me. Starts out like a quaint, good-ish book, perfect for a Sunday afternoon between moments of American ease; but then, Percy does his ol' sneak-up and catches you off guard with an ending that feels like you have just witnessed something so astoundingly important that you MUST figure it out. But I read the last section eight more times (after standing up from the table with my hands grasping my head, every emotion possible coursing through me), and I can't say I know EXACTLY what affected me the way it did. But it did. And this surprising, divinely confusing effect is what draws me back to Percy again and again.


My favorite of Walker Percy's novels. Williston Bibb Barrett, the protagonist, although that is a somewhat inappropriate label for him, wanders through the novel reacting to other people in a highly mannered way, initiating very little, but his very self-effacement presents a tabula rasa for those around him to fill in.Somewhere in this book I remember seeing the description of manners as existing so that "nobody would ever not know what to do." I have looked for the line and not found it lately, but I feel it accurately describes Billy Barrett's survival methods. Billy is subject to "fugue states" which leave him un-moored from a sense of self or even his name, from time to time.He is not unlike the character of Chance the gardener in Being There by Jerzy Kosinski in his effect on other people, who read their own values into Chance's simplistic gardening commentary. Chance is limited and simple all the time, where Billy can sometimes rise to function as an entire human being, until his fugue state settles in.The lives of the other characters in Percy's book are greatly influenced by their encounters with Billy Barrett, while Billy drifts on the surface of his life, gently nudged this way and that.

David Lentz

Walker Percy is one of the great novelists of the South and is at his best when he describes quotidian life there. The protagonist, whom Percy shapes as an engineer, is the personification of the Deep South. The engineer is a Princeton man with a high-powered telescope living in New York City with episodes of amnesia or "fugues," which disorient him. This poor man takes a job caring for a desperately sick young man named Jamie and falls in love with his sister, Kitty. Jamie is receiving treatment in New York for his illness and the family wants to return from New York to their home in the South, inviting the engineer to accompany Jamie and drive him there. The experience of driving from New York into the South is well written and at times Percy reminded me of a Southern Saul Bellow -- brilliant, brainy, adept in the use of a straight-ahead narrative style. The theme of the novel is the way in which the artifice of our culture and religion is at odds with the realities of everyday existence. This enigmatic dialectic pervades the novel and is at the heart of the engineer's disorientation. The graphic closing pages of this novel are hard to read as Percy can be intensely vivid, which is both wonderful when life is good and tragic when life is painful -- but such is the plight of the last gentleman. I admired and cared about the gentlemanly character of the engineer struggling to find his way despite his sensitivity and disorientation. In fact, nearly all of the characters are fully drawn, highly nuanced figures about whom I cared. The writing style is gorgeous with obvious high marks for craftsmanship as it transported me with incredibly true-to-life dialogue based upon 14 years of living in the South. I loved the originality of the story line and its deeper currents as the writer worked hard in building this novel. The overall literary experience moved and even shook me in the intense denouement and its prominent place in readership in coming generations is assured.

Nicolas Shump

There is something about Percy's work that lingers with you after you have finished reading it. I think part of it is the lack of true resolution in his novels. I suppose this is related to Percy's view of humans as wayfarers. Our journeys last our whole lives. It is springs from the characters and ambiance that he creates.I cannot recall much plot detail in his first novel, The Moviegoer, but I have never forgotten about his concept of "everydayness." It still haunts me. Similarly, from The Thanatos Syndrome, his last novel, I remember the character of Father Smith, the idea of women "presenting rearward" in this novel, and Percy's discussion of the Weimar Republic and the ideas of eugenics and abortion that were popular in this society.With The Last Gentleman, there are Will Barrett's "fugues", Sutter, Jamie, Val, and Kitty. Each of these characters is well-defined. The ideas are there too, but I think a reader would appreciate the novels without being an expert on the writings and beliefs of Soren Kierkegaard. I found myself wanting to find the resolution of Will and Kitty's relationship. The specter of suicide hangs over this novel. Will Sutter kill himself? I cannot forget about the discussion of suicide, Sutter's practice attempts either. I know that Percy is heavily influenced by Existentialism, but I wonder if the suicide of Percy's father is not at play too. After reading this book, I want to skip to the second Will Barrett book, but I'll probably try to go in order and maybe even tackle some of his semiotic writings too.


Bill Barrett the main character of this novel is a lost soul. In his lostness and his searching he does his best to be good and kind, he is vulnerable and detached. I have come to the conclusion that while I like the character and could "relate" to his plight in theory, it didn't resonate with me because of the the time and social context in which he is lost. The way his search for meaning and place happened was unique to his southern roots and his aristocratic lineage. My lostness is a more modern northern variety, middle class and secular to the core.With that said overall I enjoyed the book. I liked the dialogue, I liked the cast of characters and their interactions absent a total understanding of the deeper themes. With a little Internet research and a rereading of the introduction (in my volume) by Robert Coles I began to understand much more.Nutshell. Modern man though equipped with the tools of science and psychoanalysis, of infinite spiritual outlets and information is still lost in space. The only true thing that we can know is that death happens to us all and it doesn't ask any questions. It seems that this realization wakes Will up at the end of the novel and he gets much surer about who he is and what he wants.The beauty of this book lay in its subtlety. Barrett is a lost confused humble soul for reasons that Percy only alludes to. He leaves it up to us to connect the dots of Will's history and psychology. The author has a message here I think but he doesn't impose it.

Lance Kinzer

I liked this book the first time I read it ten years ago, but it stuck me much more profoundly upon this recent re-reading. Percy tackles many issues in this book, all of which ultimately relate to how meaning and thus life itself can be possible in a demystified and inverted modern world. There is a fair amount of farce in The Last Gentleman, but it is farce in service of a serious purpose - the exploration of the absurdity of so much that is taken for granted. The path forward Percy suggests requires a merging of the immanent with the transcendent, In Percy's world this is what everyone is searching for, haltingly, wrongly even absurdly. But where this merging is found in its true and ultimate form there is yet hope.


This is the second Walker Percy novel I have read (my brother Wesley got it for me for this past Christmas), and it seemed a good fit for me. A southern boy moves to NYC and struggles with identity and the meaning of contemporary life. Right up my alley, so far so good. And I loved "Love In the Ruins", so all signs pointed to me loving this book... but even though I enjoyed huge parts of this novel (especially thoughts on the culture of Southern manners, which I miss up here in the frosty North from time to time), there can be no hiding the fact that the ending made me terrifically angry. So angry that I want to pretend it never happened, that it doesn't end that way...Everyone swallows the Lie, everyone chooses life, and chooses a job, and a career, and a fucking big television, washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers... and even though I shouldn't have been so surprised considering where "Love in the Ruins" ended up, I was still surprised and deeply disappointed.


Read the whole thing for the reward of the last 20 pages --a true and honest depiction of the moments just prior to death after a prolonged illness. What will you do with your life? What will you do with your death? There's a lot to think on here: memory, identity, recognizing who we are and our place in the world, home and not-home. Challenging, but worthwhile.

Chris Gager

I'm sure there's stuff going on in WP's books that I don't get but I love them anyway. This was my first and I've read all of them twice except for the last two. Will shows up again years later in "The Second Coming". Will is pretty much confused and "fugued" out by life. Favorite part: Will is traveling across Mississippi and comes to Oxford while the James Meredith integrating was taking place. As he's crossing the town at night with rioter's fires blazing in the streets he's confronted by a running wild-faced young man who screams at him "He's here!" and runs off. Date read is approximate for the second read.


There was a natural cadence to the dialogues in "The Last Gentleman" that felt like eavesdropping on actual conversations; these proved to be the most enjoyable parts of the novel for me. However, the descriptive passages seemed to extend on into dreamy unintelligibility, almost as if Percy's thoughts started to run away with themselves while he was writing. I noticed both of these qualities while reading "The Moviegoer," which I feel is the superior work, and though I appreciate the former more than latter, both contribute to a style that is uniquely Percy's. NB: Percy frequently describes the smells of the South as "ham-rich" or "rich as ham," which leads me to conclude that the reason for the high rates of obesity in that region of the country is the constant smell of pork products! Mmmm, bacon...algghhhhh.

Tom Gilliam

Ten years ago I might have given this a higher rating, but my worldview has changed with age. In fact, early in the first chapter, there is a passage that i used to use to justify my participation in a war that I knew to be illegal and immoral. Young and drunk, the idea of a Southern gentleman's malaise once held a certain element of romance for me. Now that I've experienced life and its many tribulations, I can only hope for something better. I will go so far as to say that the malaise presented by Percy is boring. This book reeks of white privilege.

Jeff Miller

What more can you say other than it is a Walker Percy novel. Just stunningly well written. The story of the young man referred to as the "engineer" or "sentient engineer" who has episodes of amnesia and is finding his way through life. As an observer he is very insightful about people and comes to easily know them, yet does not know him self and seeks guidance. The family he comes to be involved with both deepens and confuses his search. Such great characters and writing and I have know started the followup novel The Second Coming.

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