The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

The Moviegoer. Walker Percy. (NY: Vintage, 1960 [1998 reprint]). 241 pages.

It is common to find discussions of “sense of place” in modern academic texts. Anthropologists, philosophers, and literary theorists give much attention to the bonds between man and place and the manner in which perceptions, beliefs, and actions are influenced by it.

Such considerations were not so common at the time in which Walker Percy penned his novel The Moviegoer. Nevertheless, Percy was not only conscious of this relational phenomena but embraced it and used it artfully in the weaving of his story. At one point “sense of place” becomes not only a creative structural tool but also an explicit topic of discussion. Upon traveling from New Orleans to Chicago the main character, Binx Bolling who serves as the first person narrator, relates the following,

“I am consoled only to see that I was not mistaken: Chicago is just a I remembered it. I was here twenty five years ago. My father brought me and Scott up to see the Century of Progress and once later to the World Series. Not a single thing do I remember from the first trip but this: the sense of the place, the savor of the genie-soul of the place which every place has or else is not a place. I could have been wrong: it could have been nothing of the sort, not the memory of a place but the memory of being a child. But one step out into the brilliant March day and there it is as big as life, the genie-soul of the place which, wherever you go, you must meet and master first thing or be met and mastered.” (page 202)

Percy, understands the gravity of “place” upon the human soul. But he is much more than a cultural geographer or keenly observant reporter. He is a masterful Creator whose characters are spun from the very fabric of the world they inhabit such that The South is not so much a setting for the character’s action, nor a separate entity which demands description, but more like a “great ground of being” without which the characters could not live, and move, and have their being.

New Orleans is the setting for most of The Moviegoer. However, you will not find extravagant descriptions of Southern landscapes and culture. Instead, Percy conjures a literary magic in which the reader interacts with each and every word to see, hear, and smell The South of his recollection and imaginings. It is in some ways similar to the “certification” that Binx refers to in the book;

“There is a scene which shows the very neighborhood of the theater. Kate gives me a look…Afterwards in the street, she looks around the neighborhood. “Yes it is certified now.” She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”

This book “certifies” the lives of we who are Southern by the grace of God. And those for whom The South is only an idea, will find their conceptions solidified and made “real.”

Percy has populated The Moviegoer with characters for whom I immediately developed a fondness; Binx, who is engaged in a search for meaning and purpose, but for whom the search itself is a tonic for a soul burdened by the ordinary; aging Aunt Emily who has the knack for transfiguring the lives of those who surround her but who is struggling with a South that is changing; Kate for whom there is no dearth of suitors but who is unable to love herself or find pleasure in in the company of others.

As I was becoming acquainted with the characters I thought them to be an intriguing group of eccentrics. But as the book evolved it became apparent that they are not so much eccentric as they are unique; — just as you and I. They are not intended to be seen as exceptional, they are intended to be seen as ordinary. The Moviegoer is a watercolor of Henry David Thoreau’s claim that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

For me The Moviegoer is a kind of twentieth century retelling of the book of Ecclesiastes. It is an exceptional work and it very much deserved the National Book Award which it received in 1962.

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In the abbreviated review above I note that Percy does not rely upon extravagant descriptions to portray The South. Still, there are passages that leaped from the text at me due to the intriguing word selections and metaphors. I share a few of them with you here.

Walter would never never say “rich”; and indeed the word “wealthy,” as he says it, is redolent of a life spiced and sumptuous, a tapestry thick to the touch and shot through with the bright thread of freedom. (pages 34-35)

To tell the absolute truth, I’ve always been slightly embarrassed in Walter’s company. Whenever I’m with him, I feel the stretch of the old tightrope, the necessity of living up to the friendship of friendships, of cultivating an intimacy beyond words. The fact is we have little to say to each other. There is only this thick sympathetic silence between us. We are comrades, true, but somewhat embarrassed comrades. It is probably my fault. For years now I have had no friends. I spend my entire time working, making money, going to movies and seeking the company of women. (pages 40-41)

As if to emphasize her sallowness and thinness, she has changed into shirt and jeans. She is as frail as a ten year old, except in her thighs. Sometimes she speaks of her derrière, sticks it out Beale Street style and gives it a slap and this makes me blush because it is a very good one, marvelously ample and mysterious and nothing to joke about. (page 42)

Kate stretches out a leg to get at her cigarettes. Her ritual of smoking stands her in good stead. She extracts the wadded pack, kneads the warm cellophane, taps a cigarette violently and accurately against her thumbnail, lights it with a Zippo worn smooth and yellow as a pocket watch. Pushing back her shingled hair, she blows out a plume of gray lung smoke and plucks a grain from her tongue. She reminds me of college girls before the war, how they would sit five and six in a convertible, seeming old to me and sullen-silent toward men and toward their own sex, how they would take refuge in their cigarettes: the stripping of cellophane, the clash of Zippos, the rushing plume of lung smoke expelled up in a long hissing sigh.” (page 44)

My mother is a Catholic, what is called in my aunt’s circle a “devout Catholic,” which is to say only that she is a practicing Catholic since I do not think she is devout. (page 48)

She transfigures everyone. Mercer she still sees as the old retainer. Uncle Jules she sees as the Creole Cato, the last of the heroes–whereas the truth is that Uncle Jules is a canny Cajun straight from Bayou Lafourche, as canny as a Marseilles merchant and a very good fellow, but no Cato. All the stray bits and pieces of the past, all that is feckless and gray about people, she pulls together into an unmistakable visage of the heroic or the craven, the noble or the ignoble. So strong is she that sometimes the person and the past are in fact transfigured by her. They become what she sees them to be. (page 49)

My neck begins to prickle with a dreadful-but-not-unpleasant eschatological prickling. (page 50)

My aunt is convinced I have a “flair for research.” This is not true. If I had a flair for research, I would be doing research. Actually I’m not very smart. My grades were average. My mother and my aunt think I am smart because I am quiet and absent-minded–and because my father and grandfather were smart. They think I was meant to do research because I am not fit to do anything else–I am a genius whom ordinary professions can’t satisfy. (page 51)

She seems quite indifferent so far; and she is not really beautiful. She is a good-sized girl, at least five feet six and a hundred and thirty-five pounds–as big as a majorette–and her face is a little too short and pert, like one of those Renoir girls, and her eyes a little too yellow. Yet she has the most fearful soap-clean good looks. Her bottom is so beautiful that once as she crossed the room to the cooler I felt my eyes smart with tears of gratitude. She is one of those village beauties of which the South is so prodigal. From the sleaziest house in the sleaziest town, from the loins of redneck pa and rockface ma spring these lovelies, these rosy-cheeked Anglo-Saxon lovelies, by the million. They are commoner than sparrows, and like sparrows they are at home in the streets, in the parks, on doorsteps. No one marvels at them; no one holds them dear. They flush out of their nests first thing and alight in the cities to stay and no one misses them. (page 65)

Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. (page 100)

Never, never will I understand men who throw over everything for some woman. The trick, the joy of it, is to prosper on all fronts, enlist money in the service of love and love in the service of money. As long as I am getting rich, I feel that all is well. It is my Presbyterian blood. (page 102)

“You remind me of a prisoner in the death house who takes a wry pleasure in doing things like registering to vote. Come to think of it, all your gaiety and good spirit have the same death house quality.” (page 193)

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From a book with the title The Moviegoer, one might expect a number of movies to be mentioned. Below are the ones of which I made note:

And, here are some of the books mentioned: