No matter how much time I spend in this chair stringing sentences together, reading Walker Percy reminds me there’s usually a big difference between what I’m doing and what I think I’m doing.
Perhaps you’re feeling good because you finally painted that one room that really needed it. You took your time choosing the colors. You applied every drop of paint with the utmost care. Baseboards and trim, all pro. You are pleased as punch with yourself. Such craft! The room gleams.
Then you go to a museum or a gallery and look at some real painting.
It’s hard to say which of Percy’s novels I like best, because there are several I return to again and again. Currently, it’s The Moviegoer.
The Moviegoer was published in 1961, and won the National Book Award in 1962. Percy’s debut novel was the product of a long artistic journey. He was in his mid-40s when The Moviegoer made him a force in “Southern literature,” which is the kind of literature all writers born south of the Mason-Dixon produce, apparently. (Don’t get me started.)
The book’s narrator, John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling, is a 29-year-old stockbroker who lives by himself in a modest apartment in the New Orleans suburb of Gentilly. Here’s a self-description from the first chapter:
In the evenings I usually watch television or go to the movies. Week-ends I often spend on the Gulf Coast. Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.
There’s a boatload of scholarly work out there on Percy. The Moviegoer, like the rest of his fiction, is shaped by existentialist and religious themes. It’s a target-rich environment for academic squirrels.
I do not love The Moviegoer because it echoes Kierkegaard, or Dostoyevsky, or Camus.
Those things are all fine and interesting, and Percy did spend a lifetime articulating some rather thorny philosophical ideas. But I think Percy’s greatest triumph was his invention of an inimitable narrative voice.
Binx Bolling is alive and well. He’s right here at my elbow in this lovely 1998 Vintage International paperback edition of the novel.
In a 1999 Paris Review interview, nine years after Percy’s death, Shelby Foote recalled the creative process employed by his longtime friend:
Walker Percy and I are very different writers. I do a strict outline, which helps me enormously … Walker, on the other hand, not only had no outline but he said, not entirely joking, that if he knew what was going to happen next he wouldn’t be interested in writing about it. He wrote to find out what was going to happen, and then when he finished the first draft he really had to get to work because he had to go all the way back to find out how it had all started.
This reminded me of one of the book’s most famous passages:
To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.
The Moviegoer is now 50. It’s set in the Mad Men era, a time in American history when standards of conformity and equality were beginning to be seriously challenged for the first time in decades. (Had Binx Bolling and Don Draper ever crossed paths, they would have found they had much in common.)
The book’s central theme – that to be “sunk in everydayness” is to be in despair, and despair is the equivalent of death – still hits hard.
But the gem-like sentences and precisely crafted dialogue of The Moviegoer are things of beauty in themselves.
John Hicks is a graduate of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi.