by Walker Percy
Original and Current Publisher: Knopf Publishers; Open Road Integrated Media (ebook)
Sara Zarr writes:
I’ve always been fascinated by the relationships artists have with other artists— Van Gogh and Gauguin, Bishop and Lowell, Bogie and Bacall— and especially enjoy reading correspondence between writers. In The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy (edited by Jay Tolson) we’re privy to over forty years of letters between the two writers, friends from young adulthood until Walker Percy’s death. By the time The Moviegoer, Percy’s first novel, was published, Shelby Foote had already published four, plus a collection of shorter work. In spring of 1960, Percy sent his friend and mentor the opening pages of the work in progress. Foote approved, particularly praising a bit where the narrator, Binx Bolling, muses about actor William Holden:
I pay attention to all spot announcements on the radio about mental health, the seven signs of cancer, and safe driving---though, as I say, I prefer to ride the bus. Yesterday a favorite of mine, William Holden, delivered a radio announcement on litterbugs. “Let’s face it,” said Holden. “Nobody can do anything about it---but you and me.” This is true. I have been careful ever since.
In addition to looking to Bill Holden for advice, Binx monologues to Rory Calhoun about women, describes his soul-sick cousin Kate as “gone as a character played by Eva Marie Saint,” and keeps a “Gregory Peckish sort of distance” from the secretary he longs for. But do not misunderstand him, he is “no do-gooding Jose Ferrer going around with a little whistle to make people happy.” No, solid citizenship notwithstanding, Binx has some issues. Beauty is a whore, he says. Ten years I pursued beauty and gave no thought to money. I listened to the lovely tunes of Mahler and felt a sickness in my very soul. Now I pursue money and on the whole feel better.
Yet, the search he claims to have called off is the very one he embarks on through the novel, which (like so much good writing) reads like a letter to a friend that already knows him just well enough. Shelby Foote, for instance. He wrote to Percy about the finished work, praising its sense of place, its unique point of view, and, in the kind of succinct language rare when writers get together, called it “a real good book.” And it is—ironic but not cynical, complex without being abstruse, hopeful without sentimentality. Foote declared that Percy was ready now for whatever he might want to do in his career. After The Moviegoer won the National Book Award, the remainder of Percy’s career (five more acclaimed novels and numerous works of nonfiction) showed his friend right.
Sara Zarr was a National Book Award Finalist in Young People’s Literature in 2007, for Story of a Girl.
Tom Roberge writes:
Binx Billing doesn’t merely love the cinematic masterpieces of the era, he loves all films, and the experience of sitting in a dark theater—alone.
Billing represents what has become something of a literary tradition: a man who’s passively accepted what his life has become. He decided long ago that the well-to-do New Orleans society he was born into offers him no real pleasure, and he harbors a strong urge to abandon it all, but knows full well that he won’t. His socialite aunt dotes on him, his uncle is exceedingly proud of his insurance salesmanship, the wholesome assistants he tries to seduce are happy to play along, and his friends and colleagues consider him a fine upstanding citizen. But his physical presence in the New Orleans social scene belies a fulsome malaise. So whenever possible, and no matter what’s playing or how many times he may have already seen it, he politely excuses himself from social responsibilities and spends an afternoon or evening watching movies. This is honest escapism, a need to plunge into the tidy worlds of heroes, villains, and bombshells that films offer.
It’s worth noting that Binx isn’t at all cynical, that he’s anything but angry with the world; he handles it all with wit and charm. Percy’s criticism, then, is not of the people who populate societies like this particular one, but of the way it’s evolved, the way it leaves little room for a man of Binx’s demeanor to define his own perfect life. One of the prevailing sentiments in Post World War II America was that a return to (and expansion of) normalcy was badly needed after almost a decade of uncertainty and domestic disruption. Binx, a veteran himself and a member of the generation that was expected to strengthen the traditions and values that, as they say, made America great, simply doesn’t see the need for his own participation in this effort, but he can’t quite bring himself to rebel, either.
The Moviegoer is funny more than anything else, and the care Binx displays for his ailing cousin (herself suffering from a similar malaise but proving unable to cope very well) is touching, but the novel is invaluable as an exacting analysis of the process by which we all struggle to find our place in society.
Tom Roberge is a freelance book reviewer and editor at Penguin Books.
Fiction Finalists that Year:
- Hortense Calisher for False Entry
- George P. Elliott for Among the Dangs
- Joseph Heller for- Catch-22
- Bernard Malamud for A New Life
- William Maxwell for The Chateau
- J.D. Salinger for Franny and Zooey
- Isaac Bashevis Singer for The Spinoza of Market Street and Other Stories
- Edward Lewis Wallant for The Pawnbroker
- Joan Williams for The Morning and the Evening
- Richard Yates for Revolutionary Road
Fiction Judges that Year: Lewis Gannett, Herbert Gold, Jean Stafford
The Year in Literature:
- The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Walker Percy published this, his first novel, in 1962 after many years of writing and rewriting in collaboration with editor Stanley Kauffman. Percy later wrote of the novel that it was the story of "a young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family: a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels himself quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America."
- Walker Percy Wikipedia Entry
- Walker Percy Papers, circa 1910-1992
The Southern Historical Collection
at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library
- The Walker Percy Project
The Walker Percy Project is an independent, non-profit educational organization and is not formally associated with any university, government, state, or local agency.
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