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The Last Gentleman

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Will Barrett is a 25-year-old wanderer from the South living in New York City, detached from his roots and with no plans for the future—until the purchase of a telescope sets off a romance and changes his life forever.

Publisher: Spring Arbor/Ingram.

416 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1966

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About the author

Walker Percy

54 books663 followers
Walker Percy (1916–1990) was one of the most prominent American writers of the twentieth century. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he was the oldest of three brothers in an established Southern family that contained both a Civil War hero and a US senator. Acclaimed for his poetic style and moving depictions of the alienation of modern American culture, Percy was the bestselling author of six fiction titles—including the classic novel The Moviegoer (1961), winner of the National Book Award—and fifteen works of nonfiction. In 2005, Time magazine named The Moviegoer one of the best English-language books published since 1923.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 181 reviews
Profile Image for Leif.
35 reviews6 followers
November 5, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Ade Bailey.
298 reviews167 followers
March 22, 2010
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.

Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,698 reviews1,227 followers
May 31, 2015

Will Barrett is a slacker. A Princeton drop-out from a genteel Alabama family, unable to attend to his studies, or his life really, because he has amnesiac spells, he moves to New York City where he gets a room at the YMCA and a job as "humidification engineer" at Macy's - basically a janitor working in the basement. It's the Eisenhower era. He spends $1,900 on a fancy telescope (that's about $966,000 in today's dollars) to watch a peregrine in Central Park, but ends up training it on two successive women on a park bench. He spies them writing notes to each other and leaving them in a crack in the bench, whereupon he reads the notes and replaces them. (Highly unethical.) The first woman is sturdy and athletic, the second one young and lovely. He immediately falls in love with her, then just happens to wander into a hospital, where he runs into her father. It turns out Mr. Vaught and his family are also from Alabama and knew Will's Daddy. Kitty is the daughter Will has fallen in love with. Her teenage brother Jamie has a bad case of the leukemia, and they pull him out of the hospital and take him home to die, but not before Will and Kitty have sex in Central Park. Mr. Vaught hires Will to be a companion to Jamie down South. Will, Kitty, and Jamie all enroll in the local university, Kitty joins Chi Omega, Will asks the obscenely wealthy Mr. Vaught for Kitty's hand in marriage, and Mr. Vaught agrees, even though Will is still a slacker and, with his amnesiac spells, borderline mentally ill, because when you are part of the same country club social class in Alabama any shortcomings are forgiven, apparently. A wrench is thrown into the family plans when lusty black sheep brother Sutter absconds with Jamie, taking him to New Mexico to die. Will is sent after them in the Trav-L-Aire.

This marks the second, and last novel of Percy's I will read. It tried my patience, and it wasn't even the 20 instances of nigger or niggers, or the instance when Percy channeled Henry James and a priest "hung fire." It's not even that I'm always irritated by slacker characters, or people wanting to marry the first person they think they've fallen in love with at age 21, although I usually am. It's some combination of all these things, plus the way Percy called Will "the engineer" rather than his name, plus the Southern gothic atmosphere and the endless peregrinations, pointless except in the way they direct our attention to and reinforce the overall existential malaise.

Percy got lazy with his adverbs and adjectives in the last 100 pages, where "the engineer" said something "gloomily" about 30 times, and was constantly "puzzled."

My 1978 edition's cover illustration was anachronistic, featuring a man dressed in the clothes of a 70s scholar, with late 70s shoes. Those shoes were not available in the Eisenhower era.

There was one sentence I liked:

The engineer, on the other hand, read books of great particularity, such as English detective stories, especially the sort which, answering a need of the Anglo-Saxon soul, depict the hero as perfectly disguised or perfectly hidden, holed up maybe in the woods of Somerset, actually hiding for days at a time in a burrow of ingenious construction from which he could notice things, observe the farmhouse below.

Then there was this:

A Southerner looks at a Negro twice: once when he is a child and sees his nurse for the first time; second, when he is dying and there is a Negro with him to change his bedcothes. But he does not look at him during the sixty years in between.

Which is instructive as far as it goes, except that both Will and his father, and Kitty's sister Val, a nun doing charity work among the Negroes, contradict it.

I also liked this evocative physical description (often my favorite part of any narrative):

Down flew the Trav-L-Aire into the setting sun, down and out of the last of the ancient and impoverished South of red hills and Cardui signs and God-is-Love crosses. Down through humpy sugarloaves and loess cliffs sliced through like poundcake. Dead trees shrouded in kudzu vines reared up like old women. Down and out at last and onto the vast prodigal plain of the Delta, stretching away misty and fecund into the October haze. The land hummed and simmered in its own richness. Picking was still going on, great $25,000 McCormicks and Farmalls browsing up and down the cotton rows. Bugs zoomed and splashed amber against the windshield; the Trav-L-Aire pushed like a boat through the heavy air and the rich protein smells, now the sweet ferment of alfalfa, now the smell of cottonseed meal rich as ham in the kitchen. There had been the sense ever since leaving New York and never quite realized until now of tarrying in upland places and along intermediate slopes and way stations...and now at last of coming sock down to the ultimate alluvial floor, the black teeming Ur-plain. He stopped the Trav-L-Aire and got out. Buzzards circled, leaning into the heavy mothering air, three, four tiers of buzzards riding round a mile-high chimney of air. A shrike, the Negro's ghost bird, sat on a telephone wire and looked at him through its black mask. It was a heedless prodigal land, the ditches rank and befouled, weeds growing through the junk: old Maytags, Coke machines, and a Hudson Supersix pushed off into a turnrow and sprouting a crop all its own. But across the ditches and over the turnrows - here they got down to business - stretched furrows of sifted mealy earth clean as a Japanese garden but forty miles long and going away, straight as a ruler, into the smoky distance. The cotton leaves were a dusky gray-green, as dusky as new money. Cotton wagons were on the road and the gins were humming. The little towns were squalid and rich. From the storefronts, tin roofs sagged across the sidewalk to the muddy Cadillacs. Across the road from a decaying mustard-colored I.C. depot stretched a line of great glittering harvesters and pickers parked in echelon like a squadron of Sherman tanks.
Profile Image for David Lentz.
Author 17 books310 followers
June 21, 2011
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.
Profile Image for Abby.
201 reviews81 followers
April 25, 2012
Written in 1966, Percy's second novel following the classic "The Moviegoer." Young, confused Southerner, adrift, suffering 60's-style existential angst, a blank slate whose "radar" lets him know what others want him to be. A vehicle for Percy's ideas on philosophy, theology, the South and more. I suffered existential angst trying to get through it.
Profile Image for Kirk Smith.
234 reviews75 followers
August 10, 2017
Whether it be Brooklyn or Birmingham I seldom appreciate accounts of banal domesticity, neurosis laden diaries. I have really made poor choices lately. ** I am however a huge fan of Walker Percy, and though I disliked this, I realize that description might fit 50% of his work. ***This was the one that completes my list of every novel he has written. I'm aware The Moviegoer should be one I object to, but I love it. My ultimate WP favorite is The Thanatos Syndrome. (Oh, correction: I just noted that I have not read Lost In the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book) That's a fine thing, it will be my first, last, and only self-help book!
Profile Image for Laura.
819 reviews240 followers
May 6, 2016
My first Percy but definitely not my last. His words are addictive. Very much interested in how much of the main character is autobiographical, just curious.
Profile Image for Felix.
34 reviews7 followers
March 30, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Bruce.
274 reviews35 followers
July 11, 2019
I started reading Walker Percy because he's what's known as a Catholic writer, which I suppose means a writer who creates a world where intimations of Christian dogma emerge realistically, and are not just superadded to the plot. The strength and appeal of the novel (as well as his first, The Moviegoer) is its depiction of the protagonist coming upon these intimations in a picaresque plot, full of humor and irony, with nary a hint of didacticism. It's a long novel, and while reading I wondered if it might be improved by more editing; but then again the leisurely pace and abundant detail contribute to the verisimilitude of the hero's search for meaning. This search coincided in many respects with my own, making it a very worthwhile book.
Profile Image for Kathrina.
508 reviews127 followers
January 9, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Marion.
74 reviews21 followers
June 13, 2007
This book, based in small part on Dostoevsky's The Idiot, is, is, is everything. The final pages will make you tremble or cry, or just appreciate how we kiss and kick around despair.
57 reviews
October 2, 2009
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.

Profile Image for Paul.
301 reviews10 followers
July 18, 2015
I'm going to be EXTREMELY generous and give a book I couldn't take past page 108 (where the sex scene in Central Park begins, or maybe failed sex scene, I give no shits) two stars. Why? Because the "engineer" is admittedly a very haunting character in certain respects. Life going nowhere because of neurosis and the inability to actually choose a path in life instead of wallowing in potential? God, the man is writing about me. Kind of. I wish I had a plantation and a check every month, however modest.

Unfortunately, the book is

- rife with annoying generalist musings about the nature of life, the South, mental illness, blah, blah, blah;
- populated by characters who all feel flat and artificial and one suspects all have the same palette of mental illnesses;
- clearly going nowhere fast. My brother has a hockey card as a bookmark halfway through the book on the page with a passage that I will loosely quote: "Some days Kitty got a hangnail, and they spent the time looking for bandages and alcohol and nail scissors." Tons to look forward to!

Between Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and now Walker Percy, I am off mid-twentieth-century literary fiction for a while. Life is too damn short to read about meaningless middle class lost souls wandering through life having pointless affairs and dabbling in trifles.
Profile Image for Lance Kinzer.
80 reviews2 followers
September 27, 2020
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.

Sept 2020 - Perhaps its a sign of the times, or just my growing appreciation for Dostoyevsky like “fantastic realism”, but I increasingly think that the farcical elements in Percy are more “real” than an attempt at straightforward realism could ever be.
Profile Image for Chrystal.
756 reviews51 followers
February 15, 2017
This was an unusual reading experience for me. I slogged through the book and the story never gripped me. I even considered giving it up about 100 pages in. However, I was always conscious of the undeniable skill of the author and wanted to find out how he ended the story. He had something very tangible to say that was developing in a seemingly disconnected, but very unique way. I may come back and write a review after I mull things over, because this is a remarkable book with a powerful ending. I can't say I enjoyed the book overall, but I was impressed with the way it was put together and have to say, Walker Percy was a very gifted writer indeed.
Profile Image for Osvaldo Ortega.
63 reviews2 followers
April 18, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Justin Lonas.
346 reviews27 followers
July 23, 2017
Just went back through this a third time in prep to lead our book club through it at our next meeting. It just gets better and better with age. All of Percy's work feels more or less prophetic, as humanity has still not fully come to terms with the dislocation of the individualized, technological society birthed by WWII. The "New South", the old South, the sexual revolution, cultural Christianity, and so much more comes under his withering eye.
Profile Image for Dave.
414 reviews10 followers
August 1, 2020
Yeah, so, this was not good. The first 120 pages or so were merely kind of bad - rich boy with a plantation in decline (1950s though, what?) goes to Princeton because it's his hereditary birthright and then gets a job monitoring the temperature in a Macy's in NYC, because why not. He goes to therapy, buys a telescope, stalks some girls in Central Park, follows one to a hospital and then instantly recognizes the exact Alabama location of a man's accent.

He and the girl, Kitty, hit it off, but her brother is in a bad way. The "engineer" opines about the South and the North, religion, sex, and some other randomness, gifting us with insights like, "A Southerner looks at a negro twice; once when he is a child and sees his nurse for the first time; second, when he is dying" Mmmkay, sure.

I kind of lose the plot for a while as the "engineer" gets injured at a collegiate riot, doesn't bother to get in contact with the betrothed Kitty for a while, talks to a nun, has some high comedy on a hunt where they casually shoot some one, then takes a camper to the desert to opine some more with Kitty's family members. The whole thing ends with shit and death, and with a wasted 9 hours or so of my time.

Profile Image for Simon Robs.
432 reviews89 followers
April 2, 2017
Walker Percy's second novel also picaresque Southern gentleman's look at the world going on around him as he tries to fit in while making sense. It's a straight telling with stable plot points well limned but always from the unreliable narrator Will Barret who with bouts of deja vus and/or fugues where amnesia leaves holes to memory yet takes us through a series of events beginning in New York city parks on into the deep south in or about the mid-to late sixties or so frame. There is an interesting story here unfolding and the characters keep building the gothic column unto death's presence giving in to life's resistant pull. There's some canny verisimilitude some parallel furls to the "Glass family" as in J.D.'s Buddy telling all about big bro Seymour of the Bannanafish sort of banks into Sutter oldest son here of semi-genius spouting existential inanities and well thought deviances' but anyway concomitant familial mash. Also some "Scent of a Woman" hints here/there cathartic moments life/death struggle. But it goes on, there's a sequel come after two other novels between (have read them both not reviewed) "The Second Coming" - will wait to finish that before a review capturing thoughts from both. [...] till then...
Profile Image for Neal.
150 reviews3 followers
September 19, 2017
I am giving this book one star because I did not like it. The beginning was ok... It concerns a young man transplanted from the South living in a YMCA apartment working the night shift in a basement. Perfect - young man stuck in the labrynth. This I can work with. But then he meets some other characters and goes on a road trip down South and the whole book falls apart. It's the South with a capital S - Walker Percy is one of those southern authors you read in college - so of course he tries to make everything symbolic and allegorical. It is just hard to follow and some of the characterizations are really racist. It was written in the 60s but has the racial norms of hundred years earlier. So altogether and fairly pretentious and turgid read.
Profile Image for Sara Stetz.
362 reviews2 followers
March 7, 2020
Couldn't do it! I get reeled in by awards and accolades. Should I rate it? I don't know if that's fair since I didn't finish. I'm just glad I was strong enough to walk away! Not usually a quitter, but it was the right decision in this case!
Profile Image for Phillip Stephens.
Author 12 books31 followers
March 1, 2015
I downloaded The Last Gentleman on iBooks having confused it in memory with Walker Percy’s sequel, The Second Coming. I read both thirty years in reverse order before soon after I married but forgot that detail. It took about 250 pages for me to realize my mistake. I remember being fond of both, but of one far more. It turns out, I preferred The Second Coming,.

The Last Gentleman is the book the sequel dreamed of becoming, which is why, I suspect, Percy felt compelled to return to familiar ground when his writing matured. Having said that, the book continues to charm thirty years later and while it isn’t Percy’s best, it merits reading. I would also add that, for readers not familiar with Percy, it may be a good launching point.

Percy builds his novel around the character of Bill Barrett, a southerner out of his place and time. He’s transplanted himself to New York in the sixties at the time of the civil rights upheavals, when Southerners have been forced (a century after the Civil War) to once again confront their racial and religious beliefs. He’s shortened his name from William Barriston and given up the colloquial nickname Bibb. His father, a well known lawyer, paradoxically killed himself with a shotgun on the eve of winning his most famous legal civil rights battle. As a consequence Barrett relocates to live an uneventful and, most believe, unfulfilled life working maintenance.

Barrett suffers fugue states, and may also suffer from borderline personality disorder. What he does best, however, is dissemble. He can walk into any group and take on their characteristics, so that they soon believe he is just like them. This is how the novel finally takes shape.

Barrett spies young Kitty Vaught in the park on afternoon and develops a vague attraction. He spends his afternoons looking for her and when he sees her again he stumbles into her family who is visiting her brother Jamie at the hospital where he is in remission from leukemia. This encounter leads to a job offer from Kitty’s father to keep Jamie company for the remaining days of his life.

From this point The Last Gentleman turns into a picaresque novel, with Barrett roaming the country trying to catch up with Jamie and the Vaughts as they travel cross-country. He encounters the enigmatic and suicidal father figure Sutter Vaught, as well as a menagerie of sixties personalties from the crusading nun, the emerging feminist and Kitty, whom he decides he wants to marry and who dissembles as well as he.

During Barrett’s travels he muses on the role his own beliefs play in his confused state, a level of confusion that becomes even more compromised when he stumbles across Sutter Vaught’s journals. The journals are filled with sixties existentialism, questions of immanence and transcendence. When he finally confronts Vaught, however, he finds Vaught unwilling to help. Vaught has withdrawn from the world has well.

This is perhaps the most unsatisfying element of The Last Gentleman. Percy has not yet reached the level of maturity as a writer that he knows how to tie the pieces together, and the ending is contrived and abrupt. It works at a superficial level, like a sugar pop, the way many such endings did in the sixties, but it really resolves nothing. I believe the elder Percy may have felt so too when he sat down to pen the far more satisfying sequel.

The ending doesn’t erase the charm, the grace and the complexity of the rest of the work. Reading these passages again I felt as much at home in the language as I did the first time, and, while I don’t agree with some of my writing teachers that language is everything, I do believe language is the highway on which we travel. Percy crafts beautiful prose, and more delightful characters—even the ones we encounter for one or two pages.

The Last Gentleman is not an arm chair cozy read. He expects us to think with him, and not feel comfortable with those thoughts. Reading Percy may take you into a fugue state of your own, but that’s okay. Because when you return you may find your understanding of the world has changed ever so slightly for the better.
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,757 reviews87 followers
December 7, 2018
Walker Percy brings out the Southerner in me. I feel a visceral connection to his characters who are caught between the old and new South, despising the stupidity and evil of the old South but still deeply a part of the old South culture, wanting to see it replaced by something better, but finding the new South to be way less on many levels than a thinker and a dreamer like Walker Percy (and myself in my better moments) would wish.

Will Barrett starts this story as a classic fish out of water Southerner in New York, but he is a parody of the archetypal character in this situation, not a struggling writer living in a garrett finding a way to bring the glories of the old South to the page among a cencacle of equally brilliant struggling young geniuses. Instead, he is a mentally ill janitor, living in the YMCA and working in Macy's basement, while blowing the last of his meager inheritance on a telescope, not so as to look at the stars but to get a better view of the people. He is soon caught up with the Vaught family and pulled back against his will to his native South.

Will is a Southern Prince Myshkin -- an idiot who is not an idiot, who brings out the best in people, and who at times is almost a Christ figure. He is the only one among the Vaughts who manages to maintain a middle ground -- The father embodies the worst of the old South combined with the worst of the new; Sutter rebels against his upbringing with a rationality that is deeply spiritual, Val with a spirituality that is deeply rational, Kitty by yoyoing back and forth and Jamie by dying.

It is interesting to see how Will is the logical next step beyond Binx Bolling of "The Moviegoer," who finds enlightenment through vagueness; Will instead finds enlightenment through mental illness.

There is a lot of interesting philosophical discussion in this book, with some of the most interesting material coming from Sutter, but I couldn't help feeling that we aren't supposed to take any of it seriously. Even Sutter doesn't take himself seriously and openly rejects his writings when Will tries to talk about them. Instead it seems that true enlightenment is available only by finding the sweet middle ground that Will occupies or perhaps by dying like Jamie.
Profile Image for Paul.
423 reviews47 followers
May 14, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Josiah.
48 reviews18 followers
May 14, 2017
This book had a good begining, and at first reminded me a little of Ellison's Invisible Man in reverse (an amnesiac Southern White trying to come to terms with the South). Soon, however, the book becomes entangled in the happenings of a strange southern family, and all coherence stops. Characters say one things, then turn around and say the opposite; they continualy talk about having adventures, but nothing ever comes of it. The pace of the novel begins to feel a lot like a traffic jam: false start, sudden stop, false start, sudden stop. It was much too much like real life in that respect for my liking.

I must confess I didn't finish the book. At page 291, lacking the desire to continue and realizing that reading the thing had become a chore, I skipped to the end, which didn't restore my faith any.
I know that Walker Percy can write a good story, but in the case of The Last Gentleman it seems that he didn't.
240 reviews7 followers
December 31, 2019
I've enjoyed Walker Percy before, although I confess I do find him elusive. It's often hard to figure out where he's going or what he's getting at. Then, every once in a while, he hits you with a paragraph of pure gold, commenting on life, culture, history, the south, morality, or whatever it is he was chasing at that moment.

The Last Gentleman was the hardest read for me. It had the "contemporary malaise" that I've learned is the theme of his unofficial trilogy (Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins). This novel came out in the middle and was like "chasing a shadow" (Kirkus Reviews). At times I was riveted, at others I couldn't get going or find the rhythm.

Perhaps that's the point?

In any case, I couldn't shake the feeling that this book was over my head and I didn't understand what was really going on. The different characters of the Vaught family were well crafted but the cynicism behind them all was depressing. I believe that too, was the point...
Profile Image for Christian.
277 reviews24 followers
April 12, 2013
The Last Gentleman is difficult to review and I kind of think that I should reread it to really get a grasp of many of the ideas presented within. The book follows a young man who somewhat lacks an identity and constantly suffers from bouts of amnesia. Through him the author explores themes of identity, society, and religion. The book often feels as aimless as its protagonist and can be somewhat difficult to follow but about halfway through I thought it became easier to follow (or perhaps I became more interested and therefore tried harder to follow it). I related to the protagonist's confusion, lack of ambition, and lack of definite identity. I found the other characters odd yet fascinating. Its an odd book that I am glad I read and will probably read again.
Profile Image for Gail Jeidy.
168 reviews2 followers
February 20, 2010
This one didn't do it for me. There were some interesting trains of thought and ideas and some lovely description. Interesting that the main character suffers from mental issues and goes into spurts of amnesia and fugue states, but the way this is written is too difficult, cumbersome, annoying for the reader to follow. I did not relate to nor care for any of the characters. Or rather I did not feel emotionally invested in their journeys. The journey of the main character, the engineer, felt random. This plotless book teaches me the importance of including a plot in my fiction.
Profile Image for Elena.
530 reviews3 followers
January 14, 2011
I don't know what it is about Walker Percy--I always seem to think I'm going to like his books more than I do. This one in particular felt like I needed to devote more time to it and try to finish it faster but it's pretty long to demand that. And I found it rather slow-going. Some parts were funny, sad, and interesting but others seemed really bizarre and unconnected--like the excerpts from Sutter's casebook. I was left not fully understanding the novel but maybe that's to be expected.
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