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The Moviegoer Paperback – April 14, 1998
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From the Inside Flap
The dazzling novel that established Walker Percy as one of the major voices in Southern
literature is now available for the first time in Vintage paperback.
"The Moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a young New Orleans stockbroker who surveys the world with
the detached gaze of a Bourbon Street dandy even as he yearns for a spiritual redemption he
cannot bring himself to believe in. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he occupies
himself dallying with his secretaries and going to movies, which provide him with the
"treasurable moments" absent from his real life. But one fateful Mardi Gras, Binx embarks
on a hare-brained quest that outrages his family, endangers his fragile cousin Kate, and
sends him reeling through the chaos of New Orleans' French Quarter. Wry and wrenching, rich
in irony and romance, The Moviegoer is a genuine American classic.
From the Back Cover
"Clothed in originality, intelligence, and a fierce regard for man's fate. . . . Percy has a rare talent for making his people look and sound as though they were being seen and heard for the first time by anyone." --Time
"A brilliant novel. . . . Percy touches the rim of so many human mysteries." --Harper's
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This book covers themes of ennui, despair, self and selflessness, cultural decline, the promise and failure of religion -- but does so in a vividly personal style. This is a book to savor.
Much of the book's theme may be summed up in these lines: "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." There now. Doesn't that clarify the matter for you?
I am in no hurry to reread this book. However—and this is a large caveat—"The Moviegoer" put one very fine writer, Walker Percy, on the map, with promise of more to come, which was fulfilled. For that we may be grateful.
What makes this book great? It’s a coming-of-age story in which Binx Boling, a stock broker in New Orleans, grows up. He begins the book alienated from a responsible lifestyle. He has casual sex and attempts to live a life of ease. He even romanticizes his female secretary – a vivid reminder that this book was published in 1960. Such an arrangement reminds the reader of a disoriented modern state in which success and failure can be intimately related to each other. Indeed, in Percy’s depiction, they often seem two sides of the same coin.
Percy’s Roman Catholicism displays a view of salvation. Percy’s view differs from the predominantly Protestant culture of the American South where salvation is often equated with mere mental consent (assent?) to a set of beliefs. Instead, salvation for Bolling looks like assuming a life of responsibility. While the presentation of Bolling’s fiancee represents more of a stereotype of 1950s American culture, this responsibility indicates a coming of age for the protagonist.
Overall, this story carries itself nicely. It begins in a disjointed manner and is hard to follow. It is much like Bolling’s life at that point. Yet it comes together beautifully as the story (and Bolling himself) evolves into someone new. No wonder critics rank it among the English Language’s top 100 novels of the twentieth century. It’s refreshing to read something that is essentially a spiritual quest (even a modern pilgrimage) that is consistent with the Christian tradition but is not centered around religious beliefs. Again, Percy’s view of salvation is something concrete and embodied. It is never preachy as Bolling’s immature views of God are even criticized.
Those familiar with this type of American Gothic crossed with a redemption story will be reminded of the short stories of Flannery O’Connor (who shares Percy’s Catholicism). Faulkner’s Gothic style contains all of the disjointedness but none of Percy’s (and O’Connor’s) concretized and realistic redemption. As such, this readable work deserves its place in the English language’s literary canon.
Top international reviews
"I remember the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush. Everything is upside down for me, as I shall explain later. What are generally considered to be the best times are for me the worst times, and that worst of times was one of the best. My shoulder didn't hurt but it was pressed hard against the ground as if somebody sat on me. Six inches from my nose was a dung beetle scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out this fix, I would pursue the search. Naturally, as soon as I recovered and got home, I forgot all about it."
Further on, he muses:
"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 everdayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn't miss a trick.
To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.
The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place - but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead."
And of course, Binx is a keen moviegoer, hence the title of the book. Hollywood plays and important role in the story. Percy even gives the veteran actor William Holden a walk-on part in the novel. The charismatic movie star can confer a kind of grace on the everyday, transforming anywhere into somewhere. Binx encounters Holden walking along Pirate's Avenue and tells us:
"Holden has turned down Toulouse shedding light as he goes. An aura of heightened reality moves with him and all who fall within it feel it ... I am attracted to movie stars but not for the usual reasons. I have no desire to speak to Holden or get his autograph. It is their peculiar reality which astounds me."
Another aspect of Binx's search are what he calls 'repetitions' and 'rotations,' something akin to Jungian synchronicities if not Proustian moments (you may recall how Proust's narrator transcended time and boredom when dipping madeleine cake into tea evoking his childhood) I found these to be rather unconvincing. Binx explains:
"What is a repetition? A repetition is a re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapse in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle. Last week, for example, I experienced an accidental repetition. I picked up a German-language weekly in the library. In it I noticed an advertisement for Nivea Creme, showing a woman with a grainy face turned up to the sun. Then I remembered the twenty years ago I saw the same advertisement in a magazine on my father's desk, the same woman, the same grainy face, the same Nivea Creme. The events of the intervening twenty years were neutralized, the thirty million deaths, the countless torturings, uprootings and wanderings to and fro. Nivea Creme was exactly as it was before. There remained only time itself, like a yard of smooth peanut brittle."
This really doesn't work except as an ironic comment on the idealization of the real (or the unreal) through advertising, perhaps. Otherwise, it is a preposterous notion.
Binx has a lot of relatives (often quite difficult to follow) including half-sibling brothers and sisters as his mother remarried when his father was lost in action in World War II. He has an aunt (or great aunt), Aunt Emily, married to Jules Cutrer. Jules had a daughter before his marriage to Emily, Kate, Aunt Emily's step-daughter, hence not a blood relative of Bolling's although she is referred to as his cousin. Kate is mentally fragile, socially awkward, which may be as a result of the tragic loss of a former boyfriend in a car crash or perhaps she is temperamentally bipolar. Aunt Emily looks to Binx to befriend and generally advise Kate as she battles her way through her psychological ills. She has developed a dependence on pentobarbital (a sedative) and there is some fear that she may even be suicidal. On a whim one weekend, Binx takes Kate all the way to a Chicago to a business convention and their relationship develops. Unfortunately, he omits to tell Aunt Emily of his spur of the moment plan and he finds himself in hot water with his redoubtable aunt who gives him quite the dressing down on his return. For me, Aunt Emily's interrogation of Bolling following the disastrous trip, is not so much a brilliant defense of Southern gentility and manners but more of an eviscerating critique of modernity. Readers will be apt to draw parallels with conservative thinking even today. This was for me the high point of the book.
So what, ultimately, of Binx Bolling's search? Surprisingly, he decides to marry Kate and like the Hollywood hero he complained of who abandoned the search ("he takes up with the local librarian") he himself does pretty much the same.
Immense texte philosophique, complètement existentiel. Le personnage principal est très complexe et c'est ce qu'il nomme sa "quête " qui occupe le livre. Sa cousine, Kate, est, elle aussi très complexe et souvent bouleversante. C'est un roman qu'il faut lire et relire, un roman qui ne se livre pas entièrement à la première lecture, un roman qui peut vous accompagner tout au long de votre vie.
It's the story of man's search for meaning, and how he goes about the quest of finding meaning in his life. It touches on mental health and it's impact on those around it, in a similar vein to Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night, but without such grandiloquent language and self-regard.
It's not a page turner and it doesn't offer any trite answers, but it's one definitely one to ponder.