It is salient to point out that The Moviegoer is not about movies. At least not entirely. There are a few cameos, some allusions to then-contemporary films from the 50’s like Fort Dobbs. But cinema is certainly not the intent of Walker Percy’s debut novel. Published in 1961, Percy’s Southern gothic would beat out Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Heller’s Catch-22, and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road for the National Book Award. Living with Lit seeks to understand this considered upset and, once again, verify if The Moviegoer is still relevant.
The Moviegoer follows the humbly complacent Lousianan named Binx Bolling. Mister Bolling is on a quest for purpose. Chronicling the week up to his 30th birthday, the New Orleans resident has an itch to ‘discover’ a yet-to-be-named ‘something’. His aunt believes a formal pursuit of medical schooling would satisfy Binx’s sought after life-path. Binx, on the other hand, believes women or God may be the answer. Or, maybe, there is no answer at all.
Percy slowly constructs the mysterious Binx Bollig throughout The Moviegoer. Fragmented pieces and morbidly-poetic strands from his oblique past work to form a the protagonist. Percy achieves this technique by indulging in unexpected moments of reflection.These irreverent reveals are coupled with the contemporary Binx, in which every interaction is slightly cockeyed and rather intense. Readers begin to wonder: is it Binx that is oft-kilter or the zany world around him?:
“We talk, my aunt and I, in our old way of talking, during pauses in the music. She is playing Chopin. She does not play very well; her fingernails click against the keys. But she is playing one of our favorite pieces, the E flat Etude. In recent years I have become suspicious of music. When she comes to a phrase which once united us in a special bond and to which once I opened myself as meltingly as a young girl, I harden myself.”
An obvious characteristic of The Moviegoer is the slow drawl in Percy’s actual voice. The prose reads heavy and paced, with no intent of conforming to a succinct style. This is not necessarily enjoyable for all readers. However, those who finish the (admittedly short) book, understand that the forced patience with the writing is necessary for the Southern portrait:
“Here is the public service truck with its tower, measuring the clearance under the oak limbs and cutting some wet drooping branches. We wait to see the flambeaux bearers and now here they come, a vanguard of half a dozen extraordinary Negroes dressed in dirty Ku Klux Klan robes, each bearing aloft a brace of pink and white flares. The flambeaux create a sensation. The bearers stride swiftly along the very edge of the crowd, showering sparks on everyone. They look angrily at each other to keep abreast, their fierce black faces peeping sidewise from their soiled hoods. Kate laughs at them. The Negro onlookers find them funny, but their bold manner, their contemptuous treatment of the crowd, excites them too. “Ah now!”, they cry. “Look at him! Ain’t he something though!”
Being a character-driven novel, what makes The Moviegoer so notable is Binx’s transformation. This is best displayed textually. Speed increases and the writing style evolves as our main character departs from his emotionally stolid New Orleans for a business trip to the North. Like Hemingway’s irreverent translations (or ‘Papa’s prose‘) in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the conclusion of the novel utilizes an eccentric style with infections precision:
“The delegates are very decent fellows. I find myself talking to half a dozen young men from the West Coast and liking them very much – one in particular, a big shy fellow from Spokane named Stanley Kinchen, and his wife, a fine-looking woman, yellow-haired and bigger than Sharon, lips curling like a rose petal, head thrown back like a queen and a tremendous sparkle in the eye. What good people they are. It is not at all bad being a businessman. There is a spirit of trust and cooperation here. Everyone jokes about such things, but if businessmen were not trusting of each other and could not set their great projects going on credit, the country would collapse tomorrow and be no better off than Saudi Arabia. It strikes me that Stanley Kinchen[business associate] would actually do anything for me. I know I would for him. I introduce Kate as my fiancee and she pulls down her mouth. I can’t tell whether it is me she is disgusted with or my business colleagues. But these fellows: friends and-? What, dejected? I can’t be sure.”
The Moviegoer is a novel of self-discovery that attracts young souls. It is one of those books that will ‘find you’. In my case, a Texan thrust it into my hands, proclaiming it was his favorite novel – ever. While Percy isn’t explicit – and is ‘contradictory‘, apparently – in his intentions for The Moviegoer, to quote Robert Burton, “Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli.*”
Percy would go on to write five more novels and many essays. When The Moviegoer won the Best Fiction Novel in 1961, few had read it – at least relative to the aforementioned contenders. Does that mean the Award and the novel’s place on the Time’s Top Novels of the 20th century are a fluke? Whatever Percy’s debut novel may lack in 21st-century relevancy, The Moviegoer makes up for in reminding readers that Southern literature does exist.
*“According to the capabilities of the reader, books have their own destiny.“