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The Walker Percy Project

Walker Percy's Sacramental Landscape:
The Search in the Desert


Allen Pridgen

Walker Percy's fictional world is the affluent upper-middle-class world of the American South where his protagonists desperately search for some relief from a relentless psychic malaise that their professional achievements and great golf games are helpless to ameliorate. Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming and Tom More in Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome know something has "gone wrong" in their lives — something that has transformed their American Dream pursuit of happiness into a daily struggle to endure their work at their offices and to tolerate their relationships with their families and friends. They know they are living a "death in life," but, ironically, it is this painful recognition of their predicament that provides them with the impetus for a search for an alternative fullness of life that has so far eluded them. The stories of Will and Tom in these four novels are Percy's most thorough presentation of the "grave predicament" of the alienated and anxious twentieth-century self.

In a close textual analysis of the imagery and symbolism in The Last Gentleman, The Second Coming, Love in the Ruins, and The Thanatos Syndrome, Pridgen shows how Will and Tom, after a lifetime of blindness to these sacramental signs, begin to see anew. Percy's parabolic narratives depict those two making their "unseeing" way through symbolic sacramental landscapes toward a new knowledge of themselves and the world. Sometimes oblivious to the sacramental signs of life, sometimes clear-eyed, both Will at the end of The Second Coming and Tom at the end of The Thanatos Syndrome finally assent to the wondrous possibilities these signs signify. They begin to believe in the possibilities for a life that waits for them on the horizon and down the road.

Allen Pridgen is coordinator of the English program at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol.

Publication Date: November 2000