Reflecting on Walker Percy’s iconic American novel and its influences after 50 years of publication.
By Jennifer Levasseur
For the entirety of my adult life, Walker Percy has waited in the background like a benevolent watchman, inviting and comforting with his gentle face and sardonic smile. Never a specter but a touchstone that rested there in my periphery until I was — until any reader is — ready for the truths he unfolds with the wry humor that becomes a shocking clarity.
As a recent high school graduate, I walked into Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans to find a shrine to Percy’s work, an enlargement of his smiling countenance on the door, shelves of volumes dedicated to understanding his books. Who was this man, this writer, afforded a place in the store more prominent than the latest bestsellers and new releases? I opened The Moviegoer with reverence, but soon fell into sighs of mirth, of complicity. How did Percy know so much about me, even as he hid the specifics by camouflaging my identity as a Korean War veteran who loved fast cars, beautiful women and watched films to escape his own reality? How had he worked out so much in this first published novel about what it means to be human in the twentieth century, about how to admit the malaise without being permanently sucked under it?
While I’m no expert and not even a specialist, I am a fan and like all fans, I own The Moviegoer, in the way that anyone — except, after a while, its own author — can. It has become a benchmark, a reminder, a model and a guidebook. It teaches us how to confess — the title of an original draft leans in that direction: “Confessions of a Movie-goer (from the Diary of the Last Romantic)”— and how to face up to ourselves, no matter how different they are from what we project. Every few years since my first encounter, I’ve reread The Moviegoer, and each time it surprises me, this seemingly simple story about Binx Bolling, a successful young businessman who feels disconnected from his place, his family and his own future. Movies rather than experiences fill his memory.
A previously unknown debut novel with modest sales, The Moviegoer won the National Book Award in 1962 by upsetting a field of illustrious novels that, like The Moviegoer, have become contemporary classics: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger, The Chateau by William Maxwell, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Now more than 50 years later — and 100 years since its author’s birth — The Moviegoer is cemented as a quintessential New Orleans novel, a foundational Southern novel and a seminal American novel, one that weds the picaresque of Don Quixote, the doubt and striving of Saint Augustine, and the existential search of the German philosophers and Russian grandmasters with the American experience and its art forms. As I realized in editing Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer at Fifty (LSU Press, published this month), there remain ever more ways in which to read this novel rather than diminishing possibilities as the book ages. Impassioned scholars have filled this collection with meditations on Percy’s influences (Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Heidegger), his understanding and anticipation of celebrity and technology (including social media), as well as the novel’s take on Catholic imperatives such as bodily mortification. We also look ahead to the many writers and thinkers inspired or enlivened by Percy and his work, including Tim Gautreaux and — this may surprise readers — Bruce Springsteen. One of the most practically useful essays unpacks every movie reference in the novel.
The trajectory of Walker Percy’s life, too, is a lesson in adaptation. Born in Birmingham in 1916, reared in Athens and Greenville, educated in Chapel Hill and New York, and settled in New Orleans and Covington, he has become a native son for many cities hungry to claim his greatness. As a medical intern at Bellevue Hospital, Percy contracted tuberculosis and spent long months in sanitariums wondering about his future and reading novels and philosophy. Without this crisis, he may never have become a professional writer (even though he had already become a careful and dedicated reader) and gone on to shape the future of Southern and American literature. He may have remained an agnostic rather than embracing the Catholic Church and, near the end of his life in 1990, becoming an oblate member of the Benedictine order at St. Joseph Abbey. His biographer Jay Tolson gives one of the best descriptions of Percy I’ve read: “physician, novelist, philosopher, moralist.”
You’ll find few lists of best New Orleans novels that don’t include The Moviegoer, which is set during Carnival season and reaches its climax during Ash Wednesday. But readers expecting a tourist’s view that celebrates the façade will be disappointed. Binx, scion of an important family, lives in a nondescript home in Gentilly. He belongs to the right Krewe, but he refuses to parade or to attend the ball. He’d rather speed along the Gulf Coast in his MG touching the “warm thigh” of his latest secretary than to trot out some local color. In some ways, The Moviegoer is an anti-New Orleans, anti-Mardi Gras novel that at the same time uncovers the best reality of the city. It’s no wonder that Percy helped John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces find posthumous publication; Toole, too, upended the view of the city and its people.
New Orleans must be one of the easiest cities to gloss over. As too many mediocre films and TV series attest, it’s no feat to get the details right, but the real challenge is to capture the everyday essence of this singular place. It becomes ever more difficult if you consider Percy’s (and Binx’s) idea of certification: that a place only becomes real or valid once we’ve seen it on the screen.
“Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him,” Binx explains. “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.”
Certification is only one of many ideas flowing through The Moviegoer, Percy’s most famous work. The most-quoted section of the novel involves the search: “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. … To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
I never met Walker Percy, but I have always looked to him as a literary grandfather, one I’m disappointed to have missed in the flesh but grateful for the legacy he’s left for all of us and for the presence of a community of readers who remember him and his generosity, his humor and his humanity — which includes his foibles. As Jay Tolson reminds us, he never wanted to be considered a saint. I feel lucky that Percy kept edging into my life at just the right moment: when I got a job at Maple Street Book Shop and he watched over me daily and nearly every day I had the chance to talk to passionate readers about his work; when I was asked to collate a selection of his letters and manuscripts for an archive; when my now-husband led the drive to mark Percy’s time at our university with a ceremony and plaque; in the last few years when I was honored to work with essayists who are still finding fresh ways to read The Moviegoer.
We read and write not in the shadow of Walker Percy but in his light, in the freedom of his search, in the excitement of his knowledge and through the doors — and tunnels and wormholes and trapdoors — it opens.
Jennifer Levasseur is a native of Louisiana who received her PhD from the University of Wollongong and now resides in Australia. She is co-editor of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer at Fifty with Mary A. McCay, professor emerita of English, Loyola University New Orleans, and inaugural director of the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing. Through 12 essays, The Moviegoer at Fifty emphasizes the evolving significance of this seminal novel, and its contributors consider the text through philosophy, theology, disability theory, contemporary music and literature, social media and film studies.