Inspiring Older Readers
The Movie-Goer by Walker Percy
The Movie-goer was Walker Percy’s debut novel published in 1961, winning the US National Book Award and almost instantly becoming a classic of Southern fiction. Although Percy went on to publish several more highly praised novels heavily influenced by his reading of the Danish existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard The Movie-goer remains the book that cements his reputation.
The book focuses on John Bickerson Bolling (known also as Jack or as Binx) who is approaching his 30th birthday and who , by the late 1950s has become a successful and popular stockbroker in New Orleans. Bolling we also discover is a veteran of the Korean war – something which becomes an increasingly important aspect of his personality as the action, set over the course of one week, progresses.
Bolling is part of the network of aristocratic families of the Southern states and he grew up fascinated by books and art but, when we first meet him he has abandoned his artistic bent in favour of making money as a stockbroker:
Ten years ago I pursued beauty and gave no thought to money. I listened to the lovely tunes of Mahler and felt a sickness in my soul. Now I pursue money and on the whole feel better.
But in reality Bolling’s soul is still deeply troubled and he is alienated from the life he has created for himself. To try and fill the void, the sense that his life is utterly pointless, he spends his days in meaningless flirtations with young women he has idealised and supplements this with frequent visits to the cinema. It is the enhanced reality of the movies that he constantly seeks and he wants to live in the permanent bubble of cinematic perfection which he imagines movie stars inhabit. When, inevitably, the real world can’t live up to this he finds a spirit-crushing gloom descends on him, devaluing the human interactions he tries to make.
Despite the tendency Bolling has towards existential doubt and despair, we discover that there are counterbalancing forces conspiring to pull him back to reality, competing to give him a sense of purpose that is more substantial than his cinematic escape. The first of these is his cousin Kate Cutrer, a beautiful young woman who is also a complete psychological mess, always seemingly on the edge of a breakdown or suicide. Binx is the only person who seems to be able to make contact with her when she is in the grip of her neurosis and a sort of emotional understanding emerges between them as a result – she needs him for her stability and he needs her to give his life real meaning.
The second real world influence of Bolling’s life is his mother and half-brothers and sisters, with one of who, Lonnie, a disabled young boy, he has a special kind of affinity. He and Lonnie can share a special understanding and appreciation of the role cinema can play in providing a special place to escape to – Lonnie is dying physically and Bolling is in danger of dying spiritually and so it’s on that level they are most able to meet and share something.
Lonnie’s inevitable death simply serves to underline the need for Bolling to have an anchor in the real world, a reason to live; and it will be Kate who provides that. It may be a desperate sort of need but it is at least evidence that Binx’s life means something more than anonymously shifting stocks and bonds around.
This is a bleak book in many ways but the experience of reading it isn’t a depressing one. It’s poetic in tone and, for a first novel, amazingly adroitly handled. It’s pretty much impossible to really identify with the characters here but you really do care about what happens to them. I was left with a slight shiver down my back when I closed the book at the end because the overwhelming image you’re left with is of two terribly damaged people clinging to each other is some symbiotic way, each unable to function as people without the other and, more chillingly, having no reason to exist without that mutual need.
What Walker Percy has done here is to serve up something of an existential classic wrapped in the finery of the Southern states literary tradition and, if you’re feeling strong, it’s a masterpiece that will enthral you.
A relatively recent paperback is in print at the moment and you can get copies for well under £10.