Guest Post, Josef Kuhn: A Retrospective Review of The Moviegoer

Love and Existentialism in New Orleans: A Retrospective Review of The Moviegoer

“On this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.” So says Binx Bolling, the ironical hero of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. At one time, Walker Percy was a literary superstar. The Moviegoer, his first book, was published in 1961 to glowing reviews, and it won the National Book Award that year, establishing Percy as one of the foremost voices of Southern literature. Since then, the novel has been included on numerous “best novels of the century”-type lists. Yet whenever I mention Percy’s name to friends today, nobody seems to have heard of him (except those in Catholic literary circles, for reasons that will perhaps become clearer below). I’m here to say that this is a crying shame.

The Moviegoer fuses the philosophical complexity and spiritual intensity of a Russian novel with the Southern tradition of the “familial decline” plot. Think Dostoyevsky meets Faulkner. Binx Bolling is a boyish thirty-year-old from a genteel New Orleans family who could do virtually anything that he wants with his life—and yet, faced with such freedom, he chooses to live in a featureless suburb, selling stocks and frittering his time away with pretty secretaries. His step-cousin Kate is similarly aimless, caught in a dialectic of mania and depression caused in part by her overbearing mother, Binx’s aunt. When this aunt puts pressure on Binx to make something more of his life, it forces a crisis that sends him and Kate careening on an ill-advised Mardi Gras journey.

For one thing, Percy’s prose is scintillating, some of the most finely tuned I have ever had the pleasure to read. He depicts the subtleties of landscapes and scenery with a painterly attention to detail: “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.” (Given Percy’s frequent attention to the qualities of light and atmosphere as well as his spiritual themes, it’s not a surprise that filmmaker Terrence Malick almost made a screen adaptation of The Moviegoer.) Percy has a talent for finding the exact metaphor or simile that, when you read it, convinces you that no other metaphor or simile would possibly do, as in “The blue boat rides up and down the bayou, opening the water like a knife.”

Physical description may be the lowest rung of mastery for a writer, but Percy brings the same level of acuity and subtlety to his observations of human character. For instance, Binx observes about his cousin’s fiancée: “What is funny is that Walter always starts out in the best brilliant-young-lawyer style of humoring an old lady by letting her get the better of him, whereas she really does get the better of him.” In a dinner-table scene involving Binx’s family, every gesture and line of dialogue seems to reveal some new element of the intricate subtext. Even in the briefest sketches, the most minor characters stand out as fully realized and lifelike:

“As he talks, he slaps a folded newspaper against his pants leg and his eye watches me and at the same time sweeps the terrain behind me, taking note of the slightest movement. A green truck turns down Bourbon Street; the eye sizes it up, flags it down, demands credentials, waves it on. A businessman turns in at the Maison Blanche building; the eye knows him, even knows what he is up to. And all the while he talks very well. His lips move muscularly, molding words into pleasing shapes, marshalling arguments, and during the slight pauses are held poised, attractively everted in a Charles-Boyer pout—while a little web of saliva gathers in a corner like the clear oil of a good machine. Now he jingles the coins deep in his pocket. No mystery here!—he is as cogent as a bird dog quartering a field. He understands everything out there and everything out there is something to be understood.”

But even more than Percy’s technical virtuosity, what I find most remarkable about him as a writer is his existential audacity, the boldness and originality of his intellectual vision. He is ever attentive to the particularities of history and geography, yet in The Moviegoer, he also dares to stride right past such temporal concerns to grapple with perhaps the most fundamental question faced by conscious being: How does one deal with the freedom of one’s own existence? This, in fact, seems to be the whole point of “the search,” an idea that recurs to Binx throughout the novel. Binx has a whole private lexicon of terms that seem ripped right out of Kierkegaard (e.g. “repetition,” “the malaise”) to describe his little phenomenological “researches.” Both he and Kate are acutely aware of the flimsiness of the solutions that modern society offers them—Binx claims his “only talent” is “a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies,” and Kate pokes fun at the shallow pedantry of her therapist, whose name, Merle, is suspiciously close to merde. What they’re dealing with is an emotional-intellectual problem that, as Kate describes it, is beyond the pale of 1960s psychotherapy:

“[Merle] got interested and suggested we look at the reasons. I said, Merle, how I wish you were right. How good to think that there are reasons and that if I am silent, it means I am hiding something. How happy I would be to be hiding something. And how proud I am when I do find secret reasons for you, your own favorite reasons. But what if there is nothing? That is what I’ve been afraid of until now—being found out to be concealing nothing at all.”

Percy is an ironist and a contrarian who takes pleasure in puncturing the banal pieties of his day, especially those of educated society. In one of the most hilarious passages, Binx lampoons a radio program called This I Believe in which high-minded celebrities state their personal credos. “If I had to name a single trait that all these people shared,” Binx says, “it is their niceness. Their lives are triumphs of niceness. … Everyone on This I Believe believes in the uniqueness and dignity of the individual. I have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as peas in a pod.” By the end of The Moviegoer, it becomes clear that Percy’s primary satirical target is a kind of shallow, toothless scientific humanism that is replacing people’s ability to independently contemplate the meaning and purpose of their own lives. It is a brave new vision of the world in which “needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead.”

Percy converted to Catholicism when he was about 30 years old, and Catholicism is present in a muted fashion throughout the book. But the novel rarely comes across as preachy, at least not in a religiously sectarian sense. I first read The Moviegoer when I was still nominally Catholic but teetering on the edge; the second time I read it, I was a non-religious agnostic. But if anything, I liked the novel even better the second time around. If the foregoing rant against scientific humanism sounds a tad reactionary, it’s worth noting that Binx is just as alienated from the thoughtless, conventional Catholic piety of his mother’s family as from the lofty universalist sentiments of his father’s. Percy never clearly comes down in support of any particular creed; Catholicism is just one more phenomenon that Binx is trying to make sense of as part of his existential search.

The book does, however, have a tendency to wax philosophical; if you don’t like your fiction with large doses of existential musing, then The Moviegoer is probably not for you. Reportedly, Percy’s later novels became increasingly dark and didactic (though probably no more so than, say, Sartre’s or Dostoyevsky’s). Perhaps this later didactism accounts for his relative obscurity today. I cannot vouch for the later work, but I can attest that The Moviegoer, at least, is a masterpiece of American literature that feels every bit as relevant in today’s fragmented, decentered social world as it must have in 1961. For any craft-conscious writer, or for any reader who enjoys dwelling on existential themes, this book is not to be missed.

Guest Blog Post, James Nolan: Loose Marbles

James NolanWild-eyed Tommy plays the dulcimer on the streets of the French Quarter. Actually, what he does is tune the rusted strings on his trapezoidal wooden box more than he plays them. On week-end nights, so late that few tourists remain at Jackson Square, he can be found tuning his dulcimer under a balcony of the Pontabla building. His scraggly mane will be bent over the instrument, ear cocked to the dissonant zing zing of the strings he strikes with stubby mallets. He seldom looks up, absorbed in a music nobody else can hear.

This evening, on my way home from the grocery, Tommy buttonholes me on Royal Street to tell me about the extraterrestrial origins of Chalmette. Located among the phantasmal lights of the oil refineries in nearby St. Bernard Parish, this is a blue-collar town that we New Orleans city slickers love to poke fun at.

“They’re hybrids, you know,” he tells me. “The extraterrestrials colonized Chalmette a long time ago, right after they landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1948. That’s when the first human abductions started. You can tell by the way those people talk. Why do you think they call them Chalmatians?”

“Oh, I see.” I shift my bag of groceries from one hand to another. Local wags say the last time understandable English was spoken in Chalmette was during the British invasion of 1814. “Chalmatians. Like  Martians or Venusians.”

Tommy tells me that several years ago, before hurricane Katrina destroyed St. Bernard Parish, he was busted in Chalmette for just a liiittle bit—he holds up the tip of a pinkie finger—of marijuana. Then, after all the court dates and drug testing and community service there, he finally figured it out.

Chalmatians are hybrids.

“Just like the people in Zone 51,” he insists, crowding me up against the plate glass window of the fancy paper shop next door to my carriageway gate.

“Isn’t that across the lake?” I ask.

“No, silly.” He shoots me an indulgent smile. “Zone 51 is somewhere in Nevada, in between Las Vegas and Hollywood. It’s where the C.I.A. brought the extraterrestrials after they landed in Roswell, and where they started the hybrid experiments. But only one human is still alive who was involved in this.”

I’m all ears, even though a cut-up fryer is dripping through my plastic bag.

“George W. Bush’s daddy.”

This is starting to make some sense.

“He was one of the C.I.A. types who started the human-extraterrestrial hybrid experiments. Most of the hybrids were born between 1957 and 1986. But now it’s really gotten out of hand. The youngest are about twenty-five years old. You know Loose Marbles, those dreadlocked musicians with the dark, funky clothes who play on the corner down Royal Street?”

I nod. “Good musicians, and I love their look.”

He leans in and whispers. “Hybrids.”


“You can tell by all the stripes they wear. Striped socks, sweaters. That’s always a dead giveaway.”

Tommy’s pale, thin face is hard to read, hidden behind a bushy Wright-Brothers’ beard. He tells me that what tipped him off years ago was when he spotted a flying saucer sail out of the attic window of socialite Germaine Wells’ apartment. It was about as big as this, he says, pointing at the S.U.V. passing in front of us. Ever since then he’s been studying the hybrid situation, which is particularly severe in Louisiana, where they’re been experimenting on us.

“Just last month I was coming out of the Rawhide at dawn.” The Rawhide is a gay bar on Burgundy Street with a notorious back room. “Fog was rolling in from the river, and I looked up in the sky over the gate of Louis Armstrong Park at all these thick clouds crinkled like potato chips. And right in the middle was a perfect round hole big as the Super Dome. Looked like it was made by a cookie cutter. And right though the hole was the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.”

“Did you think the Chalmatians were landing?” I shift my grocery bag to the other hand and move closer to my gate.

“Seriously,” he says, clutching my arm, as if somebody finally understood. “The hybrids are at the bottom of everything. Reality itself is changing.”

Suddenly I’m staring at an enormous floating TV screen filled with air-borne basketball players. The screen is attached to the cab of a truck, and ear-splitting rap is blasting from inside. It dawns on me that this must be roving publicity for the National Basketball Association’s all-star play off being held in town this weekend. A good time to stay home, I decide. Drunken fans will take over the neighborhood.

“Do you see what I mean?” Tommy asks, pointing at the TV screen. “They’re everywhere.”

“It sure explains a lot.” I turn around, moving toward my door. “Where’s your dulcimer?” I call over my shoulder.

“It’s out of tune,” he shouts back. “Besides, I’m not playing on the street with this crowd. Are you crazy?”