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 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.


I'm afraid many of the metaphors and meanings of this book went over my head. Percy is too transcendent for us mere mortals. I don't know that I really like Walker Percy anyway, although I can see his use of language is good. I am surprised that this is loosely based on The Idiot. I haven't read The Idiot in years, but Dostoevsky worries about faith in a qualitatively different way from Percy. His main character in The Idiot is something of a Christ figure, which Will Barrett is not. And the existentialism of the one is yet more grounded than that of the other. In Dostoevsky, one feels that there is Truth apart from what we might know; in Percy, one feels that everything is fluid and truth is a small, amorphous thing. Despite this, it is possible to identify with Will Barrett and his sense of alienation.


I ended my review of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree by adding almost as an afterthought that it is very funny. I’ll start this on Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman by saying it too is very funny. It’s slapstick and absurdist at times, satirical, iconoclastic, wickedly spurting out stereotypes, and if you like your humour refined it’s got that subtle taste of a Socratic Kierkegaard at glee. I’m only an Englishman eavesdropping on this tale of Southern gentility so for better or worse a lot has passed by me, but taking some sort of affinity with New Yorker miserableness as the nearest I can find to a stable reference point I’ll have a go at saying something about it which can be said without having a clue about the story and the importance of history in the development of The American Identity. It’s theatrical, scenes straight from Anna Karenina, parks and gardens, actors, roles; literary, the first line of the novel beginning “One fine day in summer” reminding us of a certain autodidact in a recurrent existential fix or stuckness, and philosophical: diagonally opposite the aphorism from Kierkegaard, “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much” in my edition is the Walker statement at the bottom of page 1, “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.” Any doubt that we are being set up to play with existentialism are dispelled by the introduction of a seriously neurotic and cookie psychotherapist of the existentialist school a few pages later. It’s imagistic, photographic and cinematic, something I won’t spend too much time on, except to add ‘filmy’ to filmic as it’s important: reality comes and goes mistily as if there is a fog, some thick molecular wind that is still (Percy’s own repeated motif), and the central character suffers fugues, memory confusions of the most important intensity in his quixotic wayfaring searching for he knows not what. The central character, who turns out not to be the central character (because there are no centres, certainly not in his head) has a ‘nervous condition’ which is a euphemism if ever I heard one, or rather it’s a convenient label for classifying what is inconvenient; on a lesser level it’s simply the tension between being afraid of the social and wishing to be a part of it, the sort of stuff we have all read about. A couple of examples before I leave the filmic to show how the imagery is a vehicle for the ideas. Lots of cars carrying people described in perfect detail, usually broken down or shabby though one particularly handsome specimen of an all-American campervan, but the car you choose is the person you is, or at least it comes to reflect you; cars and junkyards, roads and metal, iron against some dried up vegetation, nature and industry juxtaposing all the time so, for example, “ Outside in the still air, yellow as butter, the flat mathematical leaves of the aspen danced a Brownian dance in the sunlight, blown by a still molecular wind….(an) abstract, lustful molecular wind”. Mathematical, abstract, lustful: more later.On a different level, there’s an hilarious moment where a character is on a college campus that has just been celebrating some sort of confederate federal event that has descended or ascended into a riot, and towards him come running a group carrying a flagpole that contains one or other of the flags. He avoids any direct lancing, but as the group turns, the arc the back of the pole makes catches him and knocks him out. It’s about history too. Specifically, the reference points that the ‘engineer’ (the pseudo-name given to the character with the most lines) has upon the maps he carries with him are the crossed swords that mark battlegrounds from the war. Such co-ordinates provide him with a route to the past or at least to a root that may be a place where he can find what he’s grown into. Unfortunately, every place he arrives at is also the same place he leaves from immediately. He’s screamingly unable to locate anywhere, and nor is he able to settle with people who come as edges, flat, in role, members of a group: he finds the dark and dead beneath the cheery belonging of this group or that, this loyalist or that frat member. Curiously, extremely unusually, his only talent is for relating to an individual as a person. Very strangely, he seems to have some sort of ‘radar’ to connect on a purely personal level with people. Levinas or Buber would have been proud of him, but, hey, we’re supposed to be talking about the real world.As I’ve said, the engineer isn’t the main character because the point is there are no main characters. Here comes the heavy bit, written as pompously as I can to parallel the parodic paradoxes of the text.If he were the ‘engineer’, he would ‘be’ Wittgenstein, of course, stand for the great destroyer of philosophy who set out to do so in order that he could live an authentic, simple life. But that role is given to another ‘character’, the doctor/mortician/alcoholic Suter whose notebook was intended merely to “be rid of it, excreta, crap”. (Doctor-Mortician Walker Percy wields a scalpel). But there are no characters, just points of intersection.The narrative tensions work to allow these points to inhabit various dialectical dynamics such as between freedom and necessity, abstraction and immanence, ‘lewdness’ and bourgeois sterility (the latter pair delightfully and comically constantly shifting face), self-enclosure and the dread of possibility. Also, of course, the doomed and preposterous pseudo-transcendent attempts to discover the final place of security, comfort and peace in this miserable world (In a line you can throw away like so much that happens in the imaginary world of this novel, the ‘engineer’ picks up a copy of Fromm’s ‘The Art of Loving’ that someone is reading: he puts it down again, remembering that it made him feel very good while he was reading it, but had absolutely no influence on his life).Suter, a very obscure figure at first, comes into focus more and more as the novel progresses, becomes a fixation for the engineer who searches for ‘an answer’ without knowing the question . Fortunately the other ‘solid’ characters move more into the background apart from cameo roles, disperse into vagueness. I was particularly grateful to have little more of the awful Kitty. Suter gets all the best lines, is the locus of the pertinent dilemmas, imaged particularly in a harrowing description of the flesh torn off his face in a failed suicide attempt to reveal the skull beneath. His notebook, which accompanies the latter engineer, has some good pompous words of wisdom and insight, like all pompous and wise texts, but it’s the dismissal of these which provide what meaning the novel may be striving for. This can’t be grasped until one considers the hideous transportings of the dying man-child Jamie’s decay into the ravages of a horrifyingly depicted death from lukaemia. As he lays dying, various ideologies hover malignantly around his body and soul. The dehumanised religious consolation matches the bureaucratic ‘care’ of hospitalisation. Distant voices vibrate with platitudes. His ending is grotesque and foul, much different from anything in the rest of the novel, more real if you like, the end point, the bringing home of the body in question. It also brings together the nature of a lewd Christendom that has become more pornographic the deeper it encloses itself in respectabilities, histories, pseudo-identity.The book finishes on a supremely optimistic note, one that gave me a joy transcending the laughter of humour.


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.


I read this at 17, but found that, ten years later, I couldn't remember it at all except for the opening scene in Central Park. I haven't changed that much in ten years. I just re-read it and really wanted to like it, took my time with it, trying to understand the metaphors and trying to picture the scenes in my mind - but I just didn't get much out of it. Maybe I'm not philosophical enough...I do like the descriptions of Southern culture as a New Yorker with some Southern experience...


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.

Osvaldo Ortega

Wow! Just finished this wonderful journey of a book. Barrett is a wonderful surreal character living on the edge of his own life. He holds in his soul the confusion and disorientation that comes from living old in a modern world. Incredible. Percy is a master of both dialogue and the stream of consciousness. This last gentleman is a tragic but enviable character. For those living in the South, or familiar with this strange place facing the Gulf, Percy's references will truly hit home. The author is a master of his native domain. Looking forward to the sequel.

Matt Simmons

To use the language of the novel itself, this is a book about learning how to get past the nihilistic desire to transcend everything, even one's humanity, and to find a way to exist within the immanent, everyday world in which we find ourselves. Bill Barrett, our protagonist and pilgrim, learns how not to forget in his travels alongside a collection of often wacky and bizarre individuals. Through learning how not to forget, he finds himself. Notice that I say "learns not to forget" instead of "learns to remember." Simply remembering who he was, where he came from, that would do little to help him--to "cure" him, as is what he seems to want, at some basic level, throughout the novel. Rather, by being brought back into contact with what he had forgotten, that self, that family, that culture, that place, and engaging in a questioning of it, Bill is able to succeed in his quest. He is cured.A heady, though very funny and wonderfully written novel of deep intelligence and emotion. The first time I read it I was thrown for a loop, as I didn't understand what Percy was doing here; every so often, you have to tell yourself that you're still reading the same novel, as it has changed so drastically, and feels so different. But, I think, once you understand that Percy shows the novel as constantly evolving and becoming alongside Bill, as a narrative means of mirroring Bill's development, then it becomes a deeply satisfying and challenging novel, that rewards careful consideration and attention. A baptism and a moment of love-making are two of the most tender scenes I've ever read, and the book's unapologetic affirmation of life is inspiring without being cheesy.

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.


This was my first Percy, and it was by turns compelling and infuriating, much like The Idiot upon which it is loosely based. I didn't know anything about the book before I selected the unjacketed copy from the shelf at my local library, nor much about the author, save for what Charles Barber had to say about him during a recent reading on Book TV. My library is woefully understocked (though you can be sure they have every title for every lousy mystery writer from the last 50 years), and even for this regionally local writer they had only two titles - The Thanatos Syndrome, which Barber had mentioned, and The Last Gentleman. So I picked up the latter and read the first page and was instantly interested to see where it would lead, seeing as how the story opens in a place I know all too well, and spends the most part of its course in a place where I am unfortunately located at the present. So it's one of those uncanny deals where a book seems to call you out and make you rethink the unlikelihood of your own experience. Honestly, I don't know where Oates gets the comparison with Camus, and Faulkner is a superficial likeness. My sense was of a cross between Flannery O'Connor and Philip K. Dick, though the latter is probably due more to the comments made by Barber about the Thanatos Syndrome. Maybe Barry Hannah is a better clue, as I couldn't help but think of the title character in Ray when I encountered the young doctor Sutter in TLG. But it's pretty clear throughout that Percy has a thing for the Russians, and though The Idiot is certainly immanent, I find myself thinking of Anna Karenina now that I'm finished. Will Barrett is as much Levin as Myshkin, and Kitty is Kitty, at least by name. [a few days after finishing, I also find myself speculating as to whether Percy intends to remind us of Huck Finn, replacing Jim with Jamie and the photographer who pulls the racial passing stunt, the raft with the camper, the river with the road and Cairo with Ithaca. Both Huck and Barrett's fathers killed themselves, and each is confronting the problem of freedom as he understands it.]I thought Percy did an admirable job with the problem of 'potentiality' as Barret suffers it, or 'transcendence grasping for immanence' as Sutter likes to put it. I don't think it's as distinctly a Southern peculiarity as he would have us believe, but then I think he presents it as such for the benefit of Southerners, who are readily flattered in this way, and leaves the rest of us to put two and two together. The other characters are pretty spot on. They may seem like caricatures, but damn if I don't know people exactly like the Voughts. The thing that especially gets me about the book is that it doesn't really seem all that dated, though it's from the 60's. The region and the people Percy portrays are unlikely, in my mind, to be going anywhere anytime soon. They might even be getting prevalent, 'winning' as Barrett's father seemed to understand.


Walker Percy, a much-honored novelist, might be best known in some circles for his noble effort to get the great "Confederacy of Dunces" published after its author, John Kennedy O'Toole, committed suicide. Percy knows great writing when he sees it, and his 1966 novel,"The Last Gentleman," features some great writing.Like other Percy novels ("The Second Coming" and "The Thanatos Syndrome" come to mind), "The Last Gentleman" is not easy stuff. It features a cast of largely unlikable characters, including its protagonist. It doesn't follow traditional narrative. It suffers from the usual dated references of 60s novels concerning race and the South. But it's a great, often quite funny and moving, ride nevertheless.Briefly, the story revolves around a very confused transplanted Southerner who stumbles upon the girl of his dreams through a telescope while she is reading a cryptic note on a park bench. Then it gets weird. Key characters include the bizarre members of a Gothic Southern clan, the world's worst psychiatrist and a white filmmaker driving around the South pretending to be black. It makes a little more sense than that, but only a little. You sense Percy is playing games with the reader and you don't really mind.Percy is an often profound philosopher. His insights on the importance of place and the universal need for acceptance are brilliant and often profound. Some of his characters reach remarkable understandings via the title character, but not all of them. The journey is what counts -- and, with just a little patience, you'll enjoy the trip.

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.


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.


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.

Pete Camp

Very philosophical novel about a young man who buys a telescope and while searching for a falcon spots a woman and falls in love. Evoked images of Thomas Wolfes' Look Homeward Angel at times. Beautifully written and thought provoking novel. The ending had my head spinning in several directions.

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