Walker Percy’s writing is ready-made to get under one’s skin, and Lancelot is no exception. Far removed from the Knights of the Round Table, Percy’s 1977 novel is a look at the madness that results when a person’s own revulsion of darkness overwhelms him.
We first meet Lancelot Andrewes Lamar in mental health facility. The reader assumes the ear of an old friend coming to visit, which gives the narration and style of the novel a sense of involvement that would otherwise be lacking. As the storyline progesses, Lamar tells the reader of what landed him in the asylum.
Once a carefree liberal, Lamar accidentaly discoveres that his youngest daughter was not his own. He investigates, and finds that his screenwriter wife has been less-than-faithful, occasionally indulging herself with her director. Lamar plots his revenge—an effort to cleanse the world of the decadence that is Hollywood. He finds his opportunity when the film crew shoots a set at his Louisiana estate.
Central to the plot is the idea of a quest—a motif that runs just as strongly through Lancelot as in Percy’s acclaimed 1961 novel, The Moviegoer. In The Moviegoer, the quest dealt with the existential search for meaning; in Lancelot, the quest is portrayed as an engine for destruction itself.
As Lamar is increasingly consumed by his desire to set right the wrong actions of his wife and her Hollywood enclave, he succumbs to the very self-reverence that he is trying to topple:
“Evil” is surely the clue to this age, the only quest appropriate to the age. For everything and everyone’s either wonderful or sick and nothing is evil.
God may be absent, but what if one should find the devil? Do you think I wouldn’t be pleased to meet the devil? Ha ha, I’d shake his hand like a long-lost friend.
While he rightly identifies a lack of the recognition of evil in our age, Lamar unwittingly (or not?) begins to fill that void himself. Lancelot is a haunting novel because it reminds us that as we stand at the crossroads of history and culture, we must take heed that our zeal to protect what is right is only a handsbreadth away from the evil we stand against.