Kirkus Star


A Novel
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Percy's fifth novel is tightly bound to the theme of his other four: Why is a person nowadays "two percent of himself"? Why are we all so unhappy? And it's most especially and clearly linked to his second (and perhaps best) book, The Last Gentleman. Here, grown older and incomparably richer (having married a cheerful, fat, crippled heiress who died), is again Will Barrett--who's still having spells and blacking out ("petty-mall" attacks, his doctor/golf-partner calls them). But now Will is coming out of those spells into a reality that includes the 30 or 40 million dollars he has; a grown, born-again daughter; and the slowly sharpening, interweaving memory of his father, on a hunting trip with boy Will, trying to kill them both on purpose. Then--to complement Will's abstracted search for what the hell it all comes out to--Percy brings on Allie, a girl in her twenties (who is later revealed as the daughter of Will's old flame from The Last Gentleman, Kitty). Allie, shock-treated and not about to be zapped again, has escaped from a sanitarium and taken shelter in an abandoned North Carolina greenhouse adjacent to Will's property. There's not much that she can remember about the business of the world--how to talk to people, for instance--but she gets along with the help of elemental physics (blocks, hoists, and tackles are needed to fix up the greenhouse) and conundrum-like speech that only Will, when they accidentally meet, seems to understand and appreciate. Two slates, then: one overfilled (Will), one about empty (Allie)--and Percy takes it gleefully from there. As with any Percy novel, the wealths here are almost humbling: the spookily precise descriptions of odd physical sensations; the satire on the complacent and dead modern South; the rage and the Kierkegaardian comic curiosity. ("The present day unbeliever is crazy as well as being an asshole--which is why he is a bigger asshole than the Christian because a crazy asshole is worse than a sane asshole.') True, there are sections in which these not-always-meshing attributes go on too long, saved only by Percy's enormous charm as a stylist; it's a generally slow book, wide-seamed. And the lack of any great advance in characterization does not lend a what-comes-next? anticipation. But this is Percy, our cool Dostoevsky, totally at his leisure (as he wasn't in Lancelot), more personal than ever before (the father-son flashbacks are fine)--and, page for page, there's more acute fiction and better prose here than you're likely to find anywhere else in American writing today.
Pub Date: July 7th, 1980
ISBN: 0312243243
Page count: 372pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1980


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