Summer Reading Series: Leonard Engel on Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer”

The 20th-century Catholic writer Walker Percy has been grouped with Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O’Connor, but he remains the least known of them all. Three of these four are Catholic converts, but each one approached, found, and explored the mysteries of the faith in a distinctive, original voice. Embedded in their work, both fiction and nonfiction, is the “quest” theme, rendered in a variety of guises—metaphysical, theological, and psychological, in addition to the intricacies of identity, wholeness of self, and, of course, love.

In Percy’s best-known novel The Moviegoer (1961), the narrator is on a search. From the opening to the last few pages, he is not clear about what he’s after, but his quest is so fascinating and filled with such unusual characters and events that we go along for the ride. Although the novel (which won the 1962 National Book Award for fiction) came out over 60 years ago, it still speaks to us today, especially to those of us who have embarked on searches.

Percy was born in 1916 in Birmingham, Alabama; his early life was not easy. In 1917, his grandfather committed suicide; in 1929, when Percy was 13, his father committed suicide; and in 1931, his mother, in a suspected suicide, drove her car off a bridge into a lake. He and his two younger brothers went to live with an uncle in Greenville, Mississippi, who provided Percy with a superb education and helped foster a relationship between him and a neighbor, Shelby Foote, the future author of a three-volume history of the Civil War. Percy’s friendship with Foote would continue for the rest of his life.

Percy was raised an agnostic but had always been interested in religion. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he had a Catholic roommate and started attending Mass. It was at this time that he started writing and publishing in the university’s literary magazine. Encouraged by Foote, this interest flourished. Percy was known for his lively imagination and sharp, incisive observations. During his years at Chapel Hill, his fraternity brothers recalled that he “became known for his dry wit,” not unlike the bright young narrator John Bickesson Bolling (alias Jack Binx) in The Moviegoer, who, like Percy, had an unsettled childhood.

After graduating from the college in 1937, Percy earned a medical degree from Columbia University in 1941. He intended to become a psychiatrist, but while working as an intern at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, he contracted tuberculosis and had to leave the medical profession. He spent several years in sanatoriums, including Gaylord Farm in Wallingford, Connecticut. Later in life, he considered his illness a godsend. “I was the happiest man ever to contract tuberculosis,” he said, “because it enabled me to get out of Bellevue and quit medicine.”

During his years of recuperation in various sanatoriums, Percy read widely in 19th- and 20th-century fiction, psychology, existentialism, and Judeo-Christian ethics. He pondered the frighteningly compelling issues facing human beings after two horrendous world wars, especially the destruction of the two atomic bombs that ended World War II. In 1946 he married Mary Townsend. They both studied Catholicism and were baptized into the church in 1947.

Percy later wrote of The Moviegoer that it was the story of a “young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family: a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels himself quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America.” This is Percy’s view of Jack Binx’s search; however, with all due respect to the author, it may be more than that.

In the course of the novel, we learn that Binx’s father, a physician, enlisted in the Canadian army at the outbreak of World War II, but died before seeing action. His mother, a former nun, overwhelmed with grief, returned to her home in Biloxi, Mississippi, to work in a hospital. She left Binx in the care of his uncle Jules Cutrer, a widower with an infant daughter, Kate. Jules had recently married a woman named Emily, and it was she who took the responsibility of raising Binx and Kate.

When the novel opens, Binx is almost 30, well established in his job, generous to family and friends, but rudderless and quite satisfied to remain so. He floats through life without deep and abiding relationships or commitments. He talks without much enthusiasm about “the meaning of life,” and claims he has no friends. He last recalls having friends eight years earlier, when he had returned to America and was recovering from a wound received in the Korean War; however, even when he is having a “good time” with these friends, he sinks “into a deep melancholy.” He abruptly departs from a group hiking trip and returns to his home in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans “solitary and in wonder . . . wondering day and night, never a moment without wonder, and not for five minutes will he be distracted from the wonder.”

Lost in this “wonder” and appearing to be getting nowhere, Binx becomes a “moviegoer”: family and friends think he is wasting his mind. Kate seems to be the only one who understands his attachment to movies—they provide “certification,” she claims. If he sees a movie that dramatizes his “neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.” A little later, Binx reflects on his moviegoing methodology:

If I did not talk to the theater owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film, which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville. So it was with me. 

Yet it was here in the Tivoli that I first discovered place and time, tasted it like okra.

Gradually, Percy reveals the nature of Binx’s existential crisis. Something will remind him of his “malaise,” and he will suddenly start reflecting on it. On a driving trip with his secretary Sharon, they have a minor accident, and he muses about “luck” and how it provides a means of winning out over the malaise:

The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able in the world than Banquo’s ghost. . . . Where there is a chance of gain, there is also a chance of loss. Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise. 

On this same trip, Binx and Sharon visit Binx’s mother at the family’s fishing camp in Louisiana. She has married an auto dealer named Smith, giving Binx six half brothers and sisters; his favorite is Lonnie, who is 14 years old and disabled. Lonnie also loves movies, and Binx and Sharon take him to a drive-in to see the Western Fort Dobbs. When they return, his mother has made up a cot for Binx on the porch. He reflects:

It is a good place, with the swamp all around and the piles stirring with every lap of water.

But, good as it is . . . I awake in the grip of everydayness. Everydayness is the enemy. No search is possible. . . . Now nothing breaks it—but disaster. Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch.

In a sudden rage . . . I roll over and fall in a heap on the floor and lie shivering on the boards. . . . Nevertheless, I vow: I’m a son of a bitch if I’ll be defeated by the everydayness.

(The everydayness is everywhere now, having begun in the cities and seeking out the remotest nooks and corners of the countryside, even the swamps.)

. . . Neither my mother’s family nor my father’s family understand my search.

And further:

The best I can do is lie rigid as a stick under the cot, locked in a death grip with everydayness, sworn not to move a muscle until I advance another inch in my search. . . . At last, the iron grip relaxes and I . . . fish out a notebook and scribble in the dark:

REMEMBER TOMORROW

Starting point for search:

It no longer avails to start with creatures and prove God.

Yet it is impossible to rule God out. . . . 

Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference. Is this God’s ironic revenge? But I am unto him.

For most of the novel, Binx has been reticent about his “search,” but here at this swampy fishing camp, surrounded by family, he engages “everydayness”—or, rather, it engages him, holding him in its “grip” until he confronts God directly and even does battle with him, however briefly. The shell separating Binx from the rest of the world has been broken.

Mississippi Writers Trail marker honoring Walker Percy, unveiled at the E. E. Bass Cultural Arts Center in Greenville, Mississippi, on October 18, 2019

Before he and Sharon leave the camp, he has two meaningful conversations: one with his mother and the other with Lonnie. The one with his mother occurs shortly after his struggle with “everydayness” and with God. He asks her about his father, and she tells him about the man’s idiosyncrasies: he was “overwrought,” she says, with a nervous system like “a high-powered radio.” Though his father was accepted as a medic in the Canadian army, he died in Crete “in the wine dark sea” before seeing combat. Jack, his mother claims, is much like his father. In hearing these stories, Jack recalls his own near-death experience in North Korea.

Jack’s talk with Lonnie centers on Lonnie’s zealous religiosity—he wants to overdo his fasting for Lent, but he weighs only 80 pounds. Jack urges him to concentrate on the Eucharist and ease up on the fasting, but Lonnie wants to continue doing penance. The two conversations reveal the beginning of a re-formation in Jack. In going more deeply into his father’s past life and death, his “search” acquires a rootedness, a grounding, and in empathizing with Lonnie and his spiritual struggles, he is reaching outside of himself to help in his brother’s “search.”

What do these experiences mean? Where do they lead? Eventually, back to his life in Gentilly and to involvement with Kate, to whom he has become close. They “agree” to marry, but he still has dark days ahead. On his 30th birthday he reflects:

Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it . . . men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday. . . . My search has been abandoned.

In other words, people don’t come truly alive until they are on the edge of disaster.

In Lancelot, a later novel, Percy says that when a hurricane is about to land, “we no longer feel uncertain about our role in the world. Everyone is focused, connected, engaged. We know what we’re supposed to do, and we do it.” Hurricanes wipe out the “malaise,” at least for a while. The conversations with his mother and Lonnie help Binx decide to abandon his circuitous search, but not before it has a positive effect on him. He now has a plan, which he has promised to articulate to his aunt Emily, who has been urging him to go to medical school. Kate asks him what that plan is; he responds:

There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along . . . It only remains to decide whether this vocation is best pursued in a service station or—

Kate finishes the sentence: “medical school.” No more complex, long-winded, existential ruminations; Jack is going to listen to people and join them in their “dark journey” of being “handed along” in the world. In the epilogue, we learn that he and Kate do marry, and that the following May, just after his 15th birthday, Lonnie dies of a virus infection. Jack’s feelings and actions connect him back to the people who are most important to him, and he concludes that he is “a member of [his] mother’s family after all.”

So what are we to make of Jack Binx’s “search”? It certainly does not have the drama of Dante’s journey in The Divine Comedy, nor the outrageous humor of Don Quixote’s, nor the dynamism of Hamlet’s speeches, nor the terror of Faust’s quest, nor even the metaphysical probing of Ishmael in Moby Dick. What does it have, then, this quarrel with “everydayness” and the resulting “malaise” it engenders? What comes to mind, in the American literary tradition at least, is Walt Whitman’s dramatizations of the wonders of ordinary life, most notably in his poem “Miracles”:

. . . honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.

Through Binx’s search, Percy examines the existential questions of life and death and the tragedy of allowing ourselves to get bogged down and overwhelmed by negativity—when we become so self-absorbed that we fail to see the beauty, the art, the resilience of renewal of life all around us, the important things that are truly worth celebrating. We lose track of what is real, what is authentic, what is genuine in our relationships with other people and the world.

Simply stated, it is a philosophy that emphasizes our own responsibility and courage. We can’t begin to live until we have faced death, stripped off the false layers of self, and gotten down to the authentic self. This is what John Bickesson Bolling’s search is all about. He doesn’t begin to take positive steps toward redemption until he hears about his father’s death from his mother, reflects on his own near death during the Korean War, and suffers the death of his brother Lonnie. The final scene in the book shows him making that existential leap by taking charge and celebrating something very ordinary with his brothers and sisters—his new, authentic family. He is now able, as he states to Kate, “to listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along.” ♦

Leonard Engel, Professor Emeritus of English at Quinnipiac University, lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife Moira McCloskey. He can be reached at Len.Engel@quinnipiac.edu.

Images: Walker Percy Marker: Everydaypsyche / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Walker Percy Portrait: Aspen Institute Pictures / Public Domain
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