Having finished The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, I discovered “Reading Room,” a feature of The New York Times with “conversations on great books.” Here are some excerpts.
Steve Coates: The plot can readily be described in a sentence. (Here’s my stab: A family matriarch asks her nephew, a depressed New Orleans stockbroker, to watch out for his even more severely disturbed cousin, and he does, to equivocal effect.) It’s mostly a frame for 30-year-old Binx to describe his life, his search for meaning in the world, and the warring ideologies of the two halves of his brilliantly, even indelibly, portrayed family. This is done in a highly episodic, incremental and psychologically acute way, with a wealth of delicious set pieces. As for Percy’s voice, Alfred Kazin caught it perfectly: “The Moviegoer” does “not overplay tone and incident in the current style.” And all this against a background of New Orleans at Mardi Gras, with the inevitable Southern reflections on race and class. Plenty of people have a weak spot for short, jam-packed, jewel-like books, and “The Moviegoer” is among the best of this kind.
Jonathan Galassi: What especially struck me this time is how entirely the novel consists in Binx Bolling’s voice — “The Moviegoer” is a kind of jazz riff, for meditative voice instead of saxophone. It’s very French Quarter in that way: languid, semi-depressed, and sexy. Binx’s self-deprecating, subtly barbed humor and his ironic aping of the suave Hollywood lead’s persona make him feel and sound like a kind of Southern, literary Jack Kennedy, a Louisiana Camus. No doubt this is some version of Walker Percy’s own idealized image of manhood, and of himself.
Binx’s generalized, almost unspecific randiness is an expression of his malaise. It’s part and parcel of his uncertainty about who he is and where he belongs. He and his cousin Kate — his alter-ego and, insofar as this is a conventional novel with a need for a resolution, the clear goal toward which the story tends — have a deep mutual understanding. Binx is restless and uneasy; Kate is mentally unstable. More than anything, they are like siblings, spiritual as well as familial. (The erotic dynamics of this relationship would be well worth discussing.)
One thing they share is their mutual understanding of what Binx describes as:
a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
Binx and Kate’s sense of disorientation is existential, but it has a geographical manifestation, too. It’s about how — and where — they will or will not participate in the world. As my colleague at F.S.G., Paul Elie, writes in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” his brilliant book about Percy and his fellow mid-century Catholic writers Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor, Bolling’s church is a movie theater. The movies’ representations of life lend it a meaning which it does not have on its own. But Binx — and Kate — need to find ways to live that have not been “certified,” not represented to them by others, but that are somehow their own.
What’s interesting to me is that they end up finding it in each other, and in their native place. That’s the Southern way, it seems. They light out for the territory on their impulsive trip to Chicago, but not with happy results. The answer for them, somehow, has to be here and inward — it’s familial, close to incestuous, one might say. They huddle together, secret sharers of an anomie that no one else understands.
The most significant “speech” in the book is Binx’s Aunt Emily’s excoriation of his seemingly irresponsible behavior toward Kate on their return from the Chicago fiasco. It is, in essence, an apologia for the values of the Old South and its class-based notions of chivalry and mutual interdependence. Aunt Emily sounds a lot like Percy’s uncle and mentor William Alexander Percy, and it’s clear that Binx — and Percy — are listening hard while she is talking. For me, this “certification” from inside the circle of kinship, this locating — which can be seen as defensive or defeatist, or as profoundly accepting of tradition — is one of the most beautiful and telling engimas of this richly veined book. “The Moviegoer” is a masterpiece about modern man’s rootlessness; it is also a great novel about our essential rootedness. It is about the lack of faith and its unavoidable immanence. How Southern is that?
- New York Times: Obituary on Walker Percy
- New York Times: Robert Massie reviews The Moviegoer
- New York Times: Charles Poore reviews The Moviegoer
- The Connection on NPR: Novelist Richard Ford on why The Moviegoer is “The Book That Changed My Life”