Lancelot by Walker Percy
Review and thoughts on the book Lancelot by Walker Percy.
Warning: this contains spoilers. Don’t click through if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know what happens in it.
We spend the entire book in the increasingly disturbing (but not unsympathetic) mind of Lancelot Lamar, a disenchanted liberal Southern lawyer who, in the light of discovering his wife’s infidelity, procedes on a personal quest to discover the “unholy grail,” a real sin in a world where every evil is just a symptom of diseased minds.
The novel is his description of this quest to an old high school and college friend, turned Catholic priest, turned doctor, Percival, from the asylum in which Lancelot is a patient. The climax of the quest is Lancelot committing a mass murder, cutting the throat of his wife’s current lover and burning down his mansion with his wife and half a dozen ineberiated people still inside (his cheating wife, his wife’s former lover, a swinger couple that has convinced his teenage daughter into joining in their orgies).
Near the end, Lancelot gives his syllogism, what he has learned from his quest for the unholy grail:
- We are living in Sodom.
- I do not propose to live in Sodom or to raise my son and daughters in Sodom.
- Either your God exists or he does not.
- If he exists, he will not tolerate Sodom much longer. He will either destroy it or let the Russians or the Chinese destroy it, just as he turned the Assyrians loose on the Jews and Sparta on Athens. …
- If God does not exist, then it will be I and not God that will not tolerate it. … But the difference between me and God is that I won’t tolerate the Russians or the Chinese either. God uses instruments. I am my own instrument. …
- I’ll wait and give your God time.
We never hear Percival speak (until the final page), but the novel is really about the effect that Lancelot’s recounting of his quest has on him. At the start of the novel, we get the image of Percival as something of what modern Catholics would think of as a Vatican II priest. He dresses in contemporary style and does not wear clerical vestments. His stock response is that we need more love in the world. When asked by a young woman who knows him to say a prayer at a cemetary for her deceased mother, he demurs. He becomes a medical doctor after his ordination, but it is hinted that the reason for this is so that he doesn’t have to be a parish priest, doesn’t have to deal with the day-to-day realities and banalities of Catholic priesthood.
On the final page, Lancelot is about to be released from the asylum and we hear Percival speak for the first time. He affirms the premesis of Lancelot’s syllogism but denies the conclusion. The novel ends just before Percival explains his own conclusion, and the mystery of the novel is what exactly was the thing Percival wanted to tell Lancelot.
But we get it anyway, only from Lancelot’s point of view:
“So, you plan to take a little church in Alabama, Father, preach the gospel, turn bread into flesh, forgive the sins of Buick dealers, and administer communion to housewives? … So, what’s the new beginning in that. Isn’t that just more of the same?”
By this point in the novel, Percival has taken to wearing clerical vestments. When passing by the cemetary on his way to the hospital, he stops to say a prayer for the dead, whether asked to or not. He has resigned his post at the hospital and agreed to become a parish priest for a small church in Alabama.
Okay, what to make of all that?
I don’t think anyone can understand this book that isn’t sympathetic to Lancelot. If, by the penultimate page, you are not simultaneously agreeing with and horrified by Lancelot’s rant against the modern world, I don’t think you can follow the novel.
The novel presupposes that you are horrified by the world we live in. Lancelot Lamar then says, the difference between you and himself, you, horrified by our world, is that he is clear-eyed and you are not. The world is bad. He will not tolerate it. If you were clear-eyed, you wouldn’t tolerate it either.
If there were no Percival in the novel, it would be impossible to read the novel except as an argument for terrorism, and not a completely unconvincing one, because that is exactly what Lancelot proposes to do in his Third Revolution.
But there is a Percival, and you see Percival’s answer, and even through the thick layer of Lancelot’s snarky interpretation of it, it’s a good answer, or I think it is, and Walker Percy thinks it is, and I hope it is because I don’t have a better one: attend “a little church in Alabama”. “Forgive the sins of Buick dealers.” Commune with “suburban housewives.” Say prayers at cemetaries.
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