What Are They Reading?

What Are They Reading?

“The Moviegoer,” by Walker Percy


By Walker Percy.
Vintage. 256 pp. $10.36.

In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling lay wounded under a chindolea bush, in North Korea, watching a dung beetle poke around beneath leaves. This moment stirs within Binx an “immense curiosity” that, should he survive the war, he vows to pursue when he returns home to New Orleans. It’s not until years later, though, that he wakes one morning with the “queasy-quince taste of 1951 and the Orient” in his mouth, and he becomes, once again, filled with the possibility in his “search.”

The search, Binx says, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” Yet since Binx has settled in Gentilly, a New Orleans suburb, he has been living “uneventfully,” working as a stockbroker, sleeping with his secretaries, watching movies. “The movies are onto the search,” he says, “but they screw it up.” Too often a film character is thrown into an extraordinary situation–losing his memory, for instance, and finding himself a “stranger in a strange city”–only to settle down and build a new, successful life. This sort of happy ending, in Binx’s mind, is what it means to live in everydayness. The confusion and questioning that accompanies the strangeness is gone, and Binx prefers those moments when a character feels adrift, lost in an unfamiliar landscape. This is when the search is possible.

What it means for the search to be possible pulses at the heart of this novel. The dislocation of man, Percy often said, was a favorite theme. And it was so in his art, as well as his life.

After finishing medical school at Columbia University in 1941, and subsequently contracting tuberculosis during his residency at Bellevue Hospital, he spent several years recovering and reading a great number of books, especially the writings of Heideggar, Sartre, and Kierkegaard. These readings and his experiences sparked a lifelong  interest regarding what it means to be alive, while knowing you must die, and many of Binx’s observations speak to this predicament. Binx feels wonder at finding himself alive at a certain time and place. His eyes continually watch “the sun shine through the Spanish moss” or “a mare’s tail of cirrus clouds” standing high from the Gulf. Though these sorts of occurrences are frequent in New Orleans, they are, for Binx, colored by his experience with the beetle–that day, wounded, unsure if he would live, he saw an ordinary bug as extraordinarily mysterious. To be aware of everyday mystery is to be aware of the possibilities in the search.

The aim of Binx’s search is understanding how to live, but for all its philosophical concerns, The Moviegoer remains a whimsical story about Binx settling for a woman and a new career. He finds them both during a whirlwind week that takes him from Mardi Gras parades to the Mississippi bayou and up north to Chicago. It’s a pleasure to read. But I also reread it recently because I was searching for “repetition,” which Binx defines as the reenactment of past experiences so they can be “savored” once again. It’s nearly three years now since I moved to New York, leaving New Orleans where I first finished this book while resting beneath a live oak. Those days are gone. And in order to have a proper repetition I should be back in a city where I can’t be, but with the wonder this book’s details evoke, I can practically smell, once again, the fallen leaves and dirt beneath that tree.

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