Binx Bolling is about to turn 30, and is floating through his life. Working in a mildly occupying job, adrift in New Orleans, getting his life’s “treasured moments” through going to the movies and dallying with his secretaries. He is not a bad guy, but he is somehow disconnected from the world while at the same time deeply involved in the moment, the sense, the smell of a place. Walker Percy has been compared to John Updike and Richard Ford, as he chronicles mid-20th Century American malaise. As Binx’s existence turns to face this anxiety of privilege, the real depth of Percy’s examination can be seen.
Percy’s touch in The Moviegoer has a little magic in it: everyday moments in a small American town are lit upon, brightened. Through simple chronicle he enlightens life, anthologising experience. The first half of The Moviegoer feels like this: Binx is floating through life, touching on subjects, spotlighting them, moving on. As a reading experience it is very beautiful. But it does jar with Binx’s own self perception, his way of seeing and introducing myself. He follows the rules, does not rock the boat, does not engage:
“It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one’s name on it certifying, so to speak, one’s right to exist. What satisfaction I take in appearing on the first day to get my auto tag and brake sticker!”
It is a small life, ordinary and peaceful. Contrast that with how he describes his neighbourhood at dusk:
“Evening is the best time in Gentilly. There are not so many trees and the buildings are low and the world is all sky. The sky is a bright deep ocean full of light and life. A mare’s tail of cirrus cloud stands in high from the Gulf. High above the Lake a broken vee of ibises points for the marshes; they go suddenly white as they fly into the tilting salient of sunlight. Swifts find a windy middle reach of sky and come twittering down so fast…”
It is almost as if the depth Binx claimed he got through movies and tv shows was in him all along, never addressed, never looked at.
In the second half, slowly, anxieties move from unacknowledged to driving his life: the malaise takes over. There is less poetry, less sense, as without thought or direction Binx almost ricochets from one tiny little event to another. He is not mean or cruel, but bad things happen from his carelessness. This lack of thought in his life affects those he purports to love but as he trips along, running away from the encroaching darkness of his own unease, he leaves loved ones in his wake.
I love the feel of the south, the swell and swelter of it, the games the classes play, the madness of Mardi Gras as Binx’s family try to continue on with their little lives. New Orleans is full of heat and life churning up, which is a very dramatic background to someone whose life is like a stone skipping along the surface. Binx’s angst is almost one of privilege, but what stops it from being irritating to the reader is his honest mind. The last time he felt alive is lying injured in a ditch during the war. This past trauma puts the day-in-day-out of the regular world through a grey, unfeeling filter. The experience was so acute, so extreme, that afterwards the world is duller. It causes him to search, almost discarding his own welfare along the way.
The difference between the two halves of the novel match Binx’s own frame of mind, the book becoming unsettling as he himself grows into his unease. In all, this makes Percy’s book both enrapturing and disquieting. I loved the disjunct between the mid-20th Century on the cusp of so much, the roiling streets of New Orleans; and this man seeing not seeing, wanting to be caught up in this world, but seeking so much more. It is a perfect portrait of a man in the middle of mid-20th Century American malaise.