Reading: “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy

[This post is related to an earlier post from May 2013: “Reading: ‘Train Whistle Guitar”]

What initially interested me about Walker Percy was reading in a critical volume quite a few years back that he was a “Southern existentialist.” Having read some of Kierkagaard and Heidegger in college – a time when I was trying so very hard to be an intellectual – and being a admirer even now of both Albert Camus’ and Jean-Paul Sartre’s works, this concept stuck with me: a Southern existentialist . . . 

Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916 – the same year as Albert Murray, author of Train Whistle Guitar – however Percy is most often associated with Mississippi and Louisiana. Percy came from a prominent Southern family whose ranks held powerful businessmen and politicians, yet the darker side of this grandeur came in the form in suicidal tendencies, which the claimed the lives of both his father and grandfather. (For a somewhat deeper explanation, read this online piece from The New York Times.) Browsing around at some critical commentaries, I’ve found that there are similarities between Walker Percy’s grim, archetypally Southern-aristocratic family background, as well as the characters in his fiction, and William Faulkner’s Compson family, and Quentin in particular. Oh how the mighty have fallen! 

the_moviegoerAlthough The Moviegoer is fairly slow in terms of plot, the psychological importance of what Walker Percy is doing in this novel matters more than potboiler-style action. The novel’s main character, John Bickerson Bolling, who is also alternately called both Jack or Binx, is engaged in a “search”— or maybe a series of searches. He is a man dissatisfied with the mundane side of life and bored with petty social conventions; he wants something more. Early in the novel, after the first few pages of describing how he spends his time having meaningless affairs with an array of easy-come-easy-go secretaries, he explains:

    What is the nature of the search? you ask.
    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. [a portion of this paragraph is omitted here]
    To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair. (13)

Despair is the word that Walker Percy uses here— not to be searching for something beyond the “everydayness” of our lives causes despair. Binx Bolling’s assertion here very much echoes the philosophy of Kierkagaard – whose The Sickness Unto Death is quoted in the front matter – and very much resembles other characters in mid-century existentialist fiction, like Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger or Mathieu in Sartre’s The Age of Reason. These men, deeply unimpressed by the options offered to them by society, are searching for something beyond the “everydayness” . . . also, these men confound the people around them with their refusal to behave like everyone else.

Yet, the swirl of psychological turmoil in the novel does not belong entirely to Binx. We also have Kate, the possibly mentally ill, possibly just frustrated cousin, and her stepmother, Binx’s Aunt Emily, the wife of his uncle Judge Anse. Aunt Emily is a driving force who seeks to change Binx’s fortunes by altering his whole life’s course away from a willy-nilly pattern of whimsical self-indulgences peppered with deep philosophical yearnings and toward a life more suitable to family traditions that yield to more conventional notions of greatness.

We find out early in the novel that Binx is twenty-nine and very keenly aware that the age of thirty is looming. And at this crux in his life, his aunt is pressuring him to do two things: first, she insists that he assume some occupation befitting their family name, some stature of importance beyond raking up the money made from shifting money around while passing time sleeping with various of his secretaries; and second, she wants him to help with Kate, who is floundering personally and who has attempted suicide through an overdose of pills. However, Binx is more interested in finding a way to sleep with his feisty current secretary (or her roommate) or in languishing indefinitely with Kate, who isn’t sure he is able to help at all.

After some mild effort spent pursuing his new secretary, which included a visit to the beach and to the fish camp where his mother and her new family were, at the novel’s crux, Binx Bolling commits the cardinal sin: he takes Kate with him on a business trip to Chicago without telling anyone where they are, and he does this right after her suicide attempt. Binx has been asked to go on this trip to Chicago as a favor, and it will cause him to miss Mardi Gras! While Binx and Kate are on the train heading north, their mutual-though-differing ambivalence and their wavering indecision about life come to a head. In the midst of a quasi-revelation, Kate says:

“Don’t you see? What I want is to believe in someone completely and then do what he wants me to do. If God were to tell me: Kate, here is what I want you to do; you get off this train right now and go over there to that corner by the Southern Life and Accident Insurance Company and stand there for the rest of your life and speak kindly to people— you think I would not do it? You think I wouldn’t be the happiest girl in Jackson, Mississippi? I would.”
    I have a drink and look at her corner. The moonlight seems palpable, a dense pure matrix in which is embedded curbstone and building alike.
    She take the bottle. “Will you tell me what to do?”
    “You can do it because you’re not religious. God is not religious. You are the unmoved mover. You don’t need God or anyone else— no credit to you, unless it is a credit to be the most self-centered person alive. I don’t know whether I love you, but I believe in you and I will do what you tell me. Now, if I marry you will you tell me: Kate, this morning do such and such, and if we have to go to a part, will you tell me: Kate, stand right there and have three drinks and talk to so and so? Will you?”
    Kate locks her arms around my chest, wrist in hand, and gives me a passionate kiss. (197)

Heavily loaded exchanges, like this one, in the novel occur between a variety of characters, lace the conversations with existential meaning. The whole thing is laced with this overlain sense of what-are-we-doing-anyway?

But these few characters don’t constitute the whole she-bang. Binx has some other things to contend with, too. For example, he visits his mother (and a whole passel of his step-siblings) in the fish camp where she and her new family are, and he learns things he didn’t know about his family when he sells some family land to a man named Mr. Sartalamaccia, who it turns out built the house on the land. We gets sense through Binx’s many dealings of just how flippantly he handles everything in his life.

The Moviegoer, like some of William Faulkner’s novels, is another in that Southern literary tradition that discusses the fallen generations of once-great Southern families. Binx Bolling is a lackluster financial planner with no motivation, and Kate is a disturbed semi-invalid. Aunt Emily is totally offended by all of this nonchalant mediocrity, as she explains in great detail towards the end of the novel in a diatribe aimed at Binx’s refusal; despite her line-in-the-sand deadline to determine what his path to greatness will be, her nephew provides her with nothing but flaccid non-answers.

By the end of the novel Binx has drawn not only his aunt’s chagrin, but also her ire. He has refused to make the big decisions, but moreover on the grand adventure that he took Kate on (without asking permission),  he slept with her on the trip. The final exchanges between aunt and nephew show us where Southern meets existentialist. Aunt Emily proclaims, during her diatribe:

. . . I’ll make you a little confession. I am not ashamed to use the word class. I will also plead guilty to another charge. The charge is that people belonging to my class think they’re better than other people. You’re damn right we’re better. We’re better because we do not shirk our obligations either to ourselves or to others. We do not whine. We do not organize a minority group and blackmail the government. We do not prize mediocrity for mediocrity’s sake. Oh I am aware that we hear a great many flattering things nowadays about your great common man— you know, it has always been revealing to me that he is perfectly content so to be called, because that is exactly what he is: the common man and when I say common I mean common as hell. Our civilization has achieved a distinction of sorts. It will be remembered not for its technology nor even its wars but for its novel ethos. our is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. (222-223)

She continues on, in basically the same vein, elaborating the great philosophy of Southern aristocracy and its noblesse oblige. And Binx’s response is simple: an utterly idle so-what. He makes no attempt to answer her assertions or her charges. He makes no attempt to defend himself or to prove her wrong. He is not impressed by her speech, nor by the people who she holds up as models of impressiveness. To Binx Bolling, the whole Southern upper-crust thing is sham— even though from our position outside looking in, we watch him enjoy the benefits of the privileged upbringing that he is rejecting.

There is a lot more to this novel than I’ve written about here – just as was the case for Train Whistle Guitar – mainly because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who wants to to read it, but hopefully I’ve danced along the surface of the major points well to make my point: The Moviegoer is an incredibly deep novel, very well-written, and also exists outside the norm of Southern fiction, too much which focuses on the certainly expected topics of race, the Civil War, the Depression, and/or Civil Rights. For example, race plays a minor role in this novel, mostly in the form of a male servant named Mercer who is extremely dedicated to Aunt Emily’s service; his interactions with Binx and his power inside the house belie the complex nature of Southern race relations. No, this novel deals far more in the delicate ambivalence of latter-day generations of aristocratic families, young men and women who have enjoyed social and economic privilege but who have no desire to take up the mantel of the Old South and continue the traditions.

I bring up The Moviegoer and Train Whistle Guitar not to criticize the mainstream traditions to Southern fiction, but to point out that some works that exist on the fringes of that mainstream go along way to exploring equally important truths. Certainly, To Kill A Mockingbird and Gone with the Wind are important Southern novels, but  then I ask: Okay, what else?  These two novels are two among many answers to that question.

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