The novel takes place over the course of one week, Mardi Gras week, in New Orleans, and concerns Binx Bolling, the eponymous moviegoer, who will turn thirty in the course of the novel.
Binx is also the narrator of the novel, and it's his voice that gives the book its unique humor, irony, and poignance; a plot synopsis does not do justice to the complexity and compellingness of this influential novel. Binx, a dreamy stockbroker and scion of an old patriarchal New Orleans family, is (he tells us confidentially) on a search. The nature of Binx's search is only vaguely understood by the reader, but Binx himself seems to know exactly what he's talking about when he uses his own peculiar vocabulary to describe aspects of the search (words like "repetition" and "rotation" are specialized jargon in Binx's idiom, used to refer to specific phenomenon.) Percy's great achievement with this novel is handling the subtle variations of distance between the reader and Binx: Is he an entirely trustworthy narrator? Is he demented, dishonest, insane? Is he putting us on? Or does he distrust the reader? Does he know we're watching him? Binx slyly takes his part in the affairs of his family and community, all the while commenting sardonically on various aspects of modern American spirituality, all the while conducting his "search," which leads him to cross paths with his equally insane cousin, Kate, and to incur the wrath of his aristocratic old aunt.
It's a very funny, very moving, ultimately heartbreaking book, for we are never sure what has become of Binx and his search. Was his spirit defeated, or does he merely withdraw to conduct his search further outside of the reader's eye? His and Kate's love story, if that's what it is, is tragic, and Binx himself might be a tragic figure--Percy complicates the question mightily.
This is a great novel, my favorite of all novels, and it has influenced everyone from Larry McMurtry to Frederick Exley to charlatans like Richard Ford, whose "The Sportswriter" is a blatant ripoff of Percy's book. The cultural commentary of the novel (which was written in the fifties) could have been written yesterday; pay special attention to his aunt's stunning speech near the novel's end when she imperiously indicts the entire American value system. It's a glorious swan song and one of the best chewing-out scenes every written.
If they tell me I can take one book to the moon with me, this is the book I'll take.