As Sandy lashed my bay windows last week, I, like much of the northeast, spent my days mostly staring outside. Trees nodded and bowed in their ancient submission. Debris sped past. On the radio, the mayor said to stay inside. The outdoors became outer space. My world shrunk to the boxy confines of my living room.
Across my region, houses washed into the ocean, a subway system filled with water. Lives and livelihoods shattered. The hope of coastal urbanization flickered. Thousands of people were thrust into hardships heartbreaking and humbling.
It is with some shame and reluctance, then, that I admit to the ease of my own experience. I read by candlelight. Keeping me company during those days was Walker Percy. I had picked his second book—The Last Gentleman—off my shelf after I recalled its strange depiction of hurricanes as philosophically rich events that visit mass existential relief upon entire populations crushed under modern malaise. For Percy, the transformative power of a hurricane lies not just in the immediate excitement, the break in routine it brings, but more so in a storm’s capacity to limit the range of human choice, its ability to deliver a whole city from the chaotic realm of the Possible back the unquestioning mode of the Necessary.
Perhaps I was feeling some of this myself. For the first time in years, I could remain utterly idle in good faith. No pangs of guilt for my laziness, no urgencies of becoming—nothing. It seemed that gusty Sandy had summoned some powerful force from my early youth, a lightheartedness that sent me into a blissful stupor that lasted through the storm.
Which is not to say that everyone in Sandy was lucky enough to be forced into reflection. Many were forced from their homes. There was nothing theoretical about Sandy’s destruction. And Percy was, essentially, a philosopher. To understand his take on hurricanes, one must start with his brand of malaise, one attuned to a distinctively American discontent. An overabundance of daily choice paralyzes the will of Percy’s characters. Minute decisions become indistinguishable from the major questions of how and why. For Percy, all options lurk about all the time and the soul recoils from this infinitely sprawling dichotomous key of doors ajar. Breadth of opportunity should make life colorful, but Percy’s overabundance causes just the opposite. His characters strive to do something, but, with their compass dials spinning dizzyingly, they can do nothing but fall into desiccated daily routine. Workaday blandness melds with torturous cosmic confusion. (Percy was particularly concerned with New Yorkers. And his diagnosis seems evermore congruous with our brave new era of the highly flexible workforce and its concomitant demand of self-branding. One can always do more, be more; work harder, better, longer; expand or switch roles. Professional identity has never been more fluid and indeterminate, yet actualization requires more daily regimentation than ever.)
In The Last Gentleman, William Bibb Barrett’s world becomes overrun with noxious, buzzing particles of malaise ample enough to cloud his vision. This foreboding blue haze creeps about Central Park the thickest on brilliant spring days ensuring that Barrett will feel nothing other than a great fatigue of existence. Like the whiteness of Melville’s whale, this dislocating fog animates the specter of a universe without meaning. It takes the landfall of one of New York’s most powerful storms—Hurricane Donna, in 1960—to blow away these sad, baleful particles. Donna’s unexpected tumult forces Barrett and a girl named Midge to pull off the highway and take refuge in a roadside diner in Connecticut, somewhere outside Bridgeport. A late-summer fling, Midge and Barrett’s relation is taciturn and uneasy.
The diner is made from a hollowed-out streetcar that sits along one of the region’s interminable blacktops. The world outside the diner grows churning and unfamiliar: “Strange Yankee bushes, perhaps alder or dogbane, thrash against the windows.” As Donna’s rage builds, the diner’s interior becomes a cosmos of contentment. Donna has constricted Barrett’s horrible range of perceived opportunity. The diner and Midge become his universe. At last, for Barrett, there is only the Here and Now. A profound warmth sets in.
The phone was dead and there was no policemen or anyone at all except the counterman, who brought a candle and joined them. The wind shrieked and the streetcar swayed and thrummed as if its old motors had started up. A window broke. They helped the counterman board it up with Coca-Cola crates. Midge and the Counterman, he noticed, were very happy … they were able to talk. …The unexpected euphoria went to the counterman’s head and he bored them with stories about his experiences as a busboy at a camp for adults (the Southerner had never heard such a thing) somewhere in the Catskills.
Recurrently in Percy’s first two novels, strong storms to provide this cozy solace, as tortured characters revert to the sweet, certain transcendence of early childhood. These descriptions always contain a nod to incubation and early life. Midge and Barrett sit in a “cocoon of heavy gauge steel and safety glass.” Later in The Last Gentleman, Barrett finds himself cooped up with a different lover, “snug as children” in a tiny Trav-o-Air camper during a tropical storm along the Georgia coast.
Problem is, in Percy’s world, no matter how violent a hurricane is, it’s still painfully impermanent. After Donna’s remnants sweep inland, Barrett returns to his shadowy, muddled existence between his scrubby room in a Manhattan YMCA and graveyard shifts in a Macy’s basement. Upon reentering the Bronx—“augh it was there again!”—the noxious particles billow back into his world.
If Percy’s hurricanes fix nothing, then maybe some value lies in the questions they leave behind. Percy’s perspective begs certainly some troubling ones: Is ours a world where only the most violent storms can calm the existential tumult of a population? And why does normalcy look so topsy-turvy from inside a catastrophe?
Perhaps we’re edging toward a well-worn lesson in simplifying modern life along the lines of: reduce distraction, turn off electronics on Sundays, spend six weeks at one of those literary summer camps for adults. But this won’t do for Percy. His indictment doesn’t lend itself to simple tweaks. Tweaks, at least, didn’t work for the author himself. That Percy turned to the godlike power of hurricanes in The Last Gentleman may have evidenced his own intensifying spiritual journey. Percy, like Barrett, was plagued by his search for meaning amid godless relativism. In The Moviegoer, Percy was more interested in man-made disasters; his characters find their truest transcendence in the aftermath of car accidents. But in The Last Gentleman, which explores an even deeper confusion and emptiness, human action fails to bring relief, so Percy turns to Mother Nature.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Percy converted to Catholicism, which, after his second novel, increasingly filtered into his prose. The Last Gentleman’s sequel, The Second Coming, is an meditation on living with mental illness and struggling with faith in God. And the book’s title can be taken literally: “Christ died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Don’t doubt it, the Great Beast of Bethlehem is coming back,” Percy had written to Shelby Foote several years earlier.
Percy made no bones about being unable to hack it in the realm of possibility. Yet this may have cost him a length of his career. It is generally thought that Percy’s religion constrained his late work. Aside from The Moviegoer, Percy’s novels are rarely read today.
So following Percy’s hurricane logic too far puts professional writers, especially, in a bind. But before we make any rash moves, spiritually, let me recommend you do something to fight your present anomie: pack a bag full of provisions, and go out to our region’s hardest hit neighborhoods to volunteer for a day or two. Things are a mess, people are cold, and the most vulnerable populations have borne the brunt. A lot of help will be needed for months to come. Do this, and your noxious particles will dissipate, if only for another day. Now go make yourself Necessary.