Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Walker Percy’s 1961 Novel Worth Reading Every Lent

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published February 17, 2011

I’ll begin this commentary by making a rather bold statement: Of all the books I’ve read, of all the novels I’ve taught, none achieves quite the same sense of revelation that I discover upon each re-reading of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel “The Moviegoer.”

When Percy’s debut novel won the National Book Award 50 years ago, many readers and critics were surprised by the choice. Percy was a new novelist, a relatively unknown Southern writer, and his book—an experiment in philosophical fiction—was difficult to fully absorb upon an initial reading. Yet while so many award-winning books of the latter half of the 20th century have declined in both reputation and appreciation, Percy’s novel about an existentialist pilgrim has endured and in fact seems to become more relevant with each passing year.

“The Moviegoer” is set primarily in New Orleans and features as its first-person narrator and protagonist the 30-year-old Jack “Binx” Bolling, a veteran of the Korean War who back home in Louisiana works as a stockbroker and spends his many idle hours going to movies, pursuing futile romances, and mulling over the possibility of finding meaning in the midst of a culture that seems to understand itself less than ever before. At the same time, he is forced to come to a reckoning with his own past, a mixture of old New Orleans gentility and Catholic sensibility that both seem to be shadowy fragments of a world that is passing away. In the midst of Mardi Gras, Binx finds himself compelled to assist his mentally ill cousin Kate while also trying to come to terms with his other family and personal relationships. Most of all, Binx tries to make sense of his place in an alienated modern world that embodies the novel’s epigraph by Kierkegaard: “The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.”

“The Moviegoer” was long in the making, both as a novel and as an expression of Percy’s struggle to find meaning in his own life. Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1916, Percy was the nephew of the well-known William Alexander Percy, whose book “Lanterns on the Levee” became a classic of Southern memoir. But Percy’s young life was marked by tragedy. His father committed suicide, as had his grandfather, and his mother died in a suspicious automobile crash. Following his mother’s death, Percy was raised in Greenville, Miss., by his Uncle Will. In Greenville, Percy befriended the brilliant Shelby Foote, and the relationship influenced the future writing careers of both men. In the tradition of the rather aloof, well-heeled Southern fraternity boy, Percy graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1937 and without any real inclination to study seriously, went on to medical school at Columbia University. While at Columbia, Percy became fascinated by pathology. During an internship at Bellevue Hospital, he contracted tuberculosis. Though he received his medical degree in 1941, Percy’s illness prevented him from practicing medicine. Through a long period of convalescence, Percy began reading seriously in both philosophy and religion and decided that he would devote himself not to a treatment of physical disease but rather to “the pathology of the soul.” In 1946 he married, and in 1947 he converted to Catholicism.

Percy’s Catholicism was both intellectual and philosophical, yet he was deeply committed to the faith, and his understanding of Catholic history and tradition was a profound influence upon both his fiction and his essays on language and culture. For Percy, the church was a constant in a human history that was marked by paradox and alienation. Indeed, for Percy, the Catholic faith provided one way out of the self-absorption and materialism of the modern world.

The desire to find meaning and purpose while escaping this “malaise” of modern life is at the heart of “The Moviegoer.” Indeed, the novel is best read as a pilgrimage, a journey from anxiety and confusion toward enlightenment. Binx characterizes his own pilgrimage as a “search,” explaining that “it is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. … To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

This concept of pilgrimage is crucial to an appreciation of the novel; without understanding that the book is the story of a seeker, the reader may mistakenly view Binx’s search as bleak and cynical. It is neither of these. Instead, “The Moviegoer” affirms the necessity of an active contemplation that rejects easy superficialities and looks instead for the deeper meanings that lie beneath the surface of the ordinary and everyday. Many readers are confused by the novel’s ambiguity, but that uncertainty is precisely the point of a search in progress. A true pilgrimage is never easy, and perhaps never neatly resolved. Binx may spend the rest of his life looking for what he seeks, but he is trying, and that effort saves him from being consumed by the disease that afflicts every aspect of modern life.

“The Moviegoer” comes to a close on Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, so I find myself reading the book again every year at this time. When I first read the book 20 years ago, in a wonderful graduate course on modern fiction, I did not fully understand what I had read. Yet I eventually saw that the book is one of those pivotal texts that has the ability to deeply affect the course of our own unique pilgrimages. I recall that my professor at the time framed the novel as both an invitation to introspection and a challenge to perception, and I know now that he was right. The book is one of those rare works that changes with the reader according to the reader’s own place in time. As such, it is deeply spiritual and a joy to share and discuss with others.

Following the publication of “The Moviegoer,” Percy wrote five other novels and several works of non-fiction and collected essays, some published after his death in 1990. In all his writing, he continued to cast an informed and skeptical gaze upon the artificiality of what the world deems to be significant. In rejecting the view of the modern human being as “theorist” or “consumer,” and seeking instead to affirm man as a spiritual creature, Percy continued to follow the path of Binx Bolling toward a more complete vision of our place in what he knew was indeed a very strange land.