The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
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.
Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is loved by many with the same passion and intensity as books like The Catcher in the Rye are loved by others. And many readers find this one just as difficult to enjoy as The Catcher in the Rye, too. It is unlikely that one will get through a graduate program in American Literature without hearing this book mentioned at least a few (dozen) times. Yet, here I am, after four years of undergraduate study in English/American literature and another 5 years of graduate study in English/American literature, and I have just now read it.
The book won the National Book Award and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Best English-language novels. At the same time, it’s a darkly didactic, existential novel. Walker Percy was an enormous fan of Søren Kierkegaard, and that influence is recognizable in this work (although much more so in Percy’s later writing). Still, the heaviness is balanced, here, with a poetic narrative structure that gives some lightness to the rather despondent tone.
The Moviegoer is set in New Orleans not long after the Korean War. It tells the story of Binx Bolling, a stock-broker just about to turn 30 years old. Bolling is basically isolated from the world, though he holds a job and interacts with family and friends. Still, there is a willing distance brought on by family problems and his traumatic experiences in the war, but also by the general decline of southern tradition which is the underlying theme for the entire work.
To cope with his depression and anxiety, Bolling has taken to constant daydreaming. He enjoys routine and repetition, these are safe, and he finds meaning and comfort in movies and books rather than the real world, which is why he cannot manage to maintain any healthy or lasting relationships (even his most loving, meaningful relationship is rather disturbing).
At Mardi Gras, Bolling decides to break his routine and set out on a journey in search of his true self. This quest takes him on a rather directionless and ultimately pointless meandering around New Orleans’ French Quarter, down around the Gulf Coast, up to Chicago and back again. Although he interacts with people he meets along the way and has some insightful and poignant moments, these experiences essentially amount to little of substance. Bolling is making an effort, mostly unconscious, to maintain a vague existence. He wants to be open to life’s possibilities, or so he says, but he is basically unhappy, unsettled, and unfulfilled.
Still, though Binx is an oddball–mentally unstable, emotionally stunted, and intellectually uninspiring–he yet has a bizarre and unsettling charm, an eccentric and darkly humorous personality that is simultaneously off-putting and somehow familiar. His flaws, that he is homophobic, sexist, and racist, are not glossed; and yet, the honest depiction of this disturbed southern “gentleman” almost, almost, adds to the charm of his character.
In another place, at another time, it would be quite easy to fall head-over-heels in love with Binx and his story, for his disillusion and his complete willingness to admit that there’s just not a lot in the real world that is worth living for. We could fall for him as simply as teenage boys have, for decades, fallen for Holden Caufield’s antagonistic, self-indulgent cynicism. But, for me, I think that time has mostly passed – and for that, I am grateful.
What is the nature of the search? Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.
Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: 21+
Interest: Southern Literature, New Orleans, American Existentialism, PTSD, Depression.