[percy-l] The Last Gentleman

janet cantor janetcantor37 at yahoo.com
Mon May 23 23:30:16 EDT 2011

Mr. Riley,
I thank you for your detailed response which helped me a lot.

Having read only these two novels of Percy's and The Last Gentleman only once, I am not in a position to rank them. I preferred The Moviegoer because I liked its construction better. 
Some of the digressions in The Last Gentleman lost me. But on the whole it was a marvelous read.
 What you say of this novel is just about what I saw as well. I liked most of the detours for what they told us about America at the time and in each locale. Percy is certainly vivid in his descriptions and characterizations. The writing is sumptuous. I laughed a lot. Those things in themselves make any book worthwhile.
As for the endings, I like the endings of both. For The Last Gentleman all the way through I thought I was reading one story. Then suddenly the book was about Sutter. So it was a sweet surprise that it will be Bill who might be saving Sutter.
 And the epilogue of The Moviegoer I have said many times is one of the most beautiful and satisfying endings I've ever read.
Percy seems to have certain themes in his books. The isolated protagonist adrift in the world must connect himself to God, and must love or care for one person, for life to have meaning. In this case Bill will settle with Kitty, but perhaps he will also do some good for Sutter. Ironically the lost soul will be the one to do the healing of others.

Forrest Gump escaped me. Not one of my favorite movies.
 I prefer to compare Will Barrett to Chauncey Gardner. So many in the book find Will so interesting because he is a kind of cipher. They can write their script on him. They can read his non reactions to them as a lack of opposition and it is just a short step from that to validation of them.
There is something about the way Percy writes that draws me in. I can't say that is  universal. I believe many contemporary readers are not willing to be patient; they want more excitement in their reading. It is wrong to forget when Percy wrote or to ignore his biography when one reads his books.
Someday I will reread these books and read others of Percy's.
I am not a scholar. I am only a reader, but I so much enjoy these discussions.

Janet and list:

I recently completed a Master's thesis on The Moviegoer and Last Gentleman so the latter is very fresh in my mind.  Here goes...

So, both novels have strongly autobiographical elements, which is something you say and then move on because it's ultimately irrelevant (Read the Tolson bio if you're interested).  The two protagonists certainly share commonalities, though the Last Gentleman's narration keeps us at more of a distance from Will Barrett than is the case for Binx Bolling.  Both protagonists are involved in a search, but Barrett's search is much more haphazardly undertaken--he knows something is missing in his life and philosophy and so he is continually looking for THE ANSWER, whether is be in psychoanalysis, a technologically-advanced German telescope, upper-middle-class values (Kitty Vaught), a father figure/mentor/confidante (Sutter Vaught), the New Mexico desert, etc...The novel is a kind of picaresque in that Barrett is constantly moving and covers a wide range of US geography.  

The novel is an impressive commentary on American culture circa 1965.  There are so many cultural references and allusions that you could spend weeks tracing them.  Percy weaves seminal events of the day into the narrative, particularly those surrounding race relations (or lack thereof).  These include:

--Levittown--the suburb(s) created as middle-class white havens.  Attempts to desegregate were met with mob violence (Barrett gets punched in the nose by an angry homeowner)

--James Meredith's attempt to desegregate Ole Miss (Barrett gets caught in the middle of an angry mob on campus and is knocked out by a swinging flagstaff)

--Reference to the Birmingham church bombing in Sutter's journal

--Freedom riders (scene in Ithaca, MS bar, Barrett helps the activists escape)


Come to think of it, Barrett is sort of a Forest Gump-like character.

So Percy moves into the arena of cultural criticism with Last Gentleman, though I think he does it better in Love in the Ruins, where the satirical tone and futuristic setting allows for better treatment of the themes, in my opinion.

Even though I've read it multiple times, I'm still not sure where to rank Last Gentleman among Percy's novels.  Sometimes I think it's his best and sometimes I think it's among his worst (though even his worst was pretty good).
It seems unfocused, if that's the right word, and does not have a particularly satisfying conclusion (is it just me, or did Percy have trouble ending his novels?). But his descriptions of American manners and the physical/cultural landscape makes this journey worthwhile.  I know I discover new things with each re-reading.

Sorry for the too long post, and I hope I don't come across as didactic.  You just caught me at the right--or wrong--time!
I look forward to hearing from others.

By the way, has anyone seen the Percy documentary yet? Reviews?

John Riley
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA
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Today's Topics:

   1. The Last Gentleman (janet cantor)


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Date: Sun, 22 May 2011 16:21:13 -0700 (PDT)
From: janet cantor <janetcantor37 at yahoo.com>
Subject: [percy-l] The Last Gentleman
To: percy-l at lists.ibiblio.org
Message-ID: <619898.1247.qm at web125906.mail.ne1.yahoo.com>
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I just finished The Last Gentleman and I would like someone to tell me his ideas about it especially the way it ended.
I read in an Amazon review that Percy said it was his version of Dostoevsky's The Idiot.
I found the book engrossing all through and found a lot of the same themes and ideas that were in The Moviegoer.
Can someone get a discussion of this book started please?
Janet Cantor

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