The Moviegoer

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Category: Classic
Date Published: April 14, 1998
Number of Pages: 241
Print Price: $10.17
eBook Price: $

In 1962 the National Book Award in fiction was awarded to an obscure debut novel by an unknown southern writer named Walker Percy.  How The Moviegoer won America’s most prestigious literary prize makes for an interesting study—there were rumors of malfeasance as it upset Catch-22 and Yates’ cultishly adored Revolutionary Road and Gay Talese reported that the book “baffled and somewhat irritated” its own publisher. 

A half century on, its victory is just as puzzling.  The Moviegoer is a brief novel; light on plot, heavy on philosophy—a pool of calm water with surprising depth.  Percy concerns himself with Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker battling a growing sense of malaise and indifference, adrift in the affluence of mid-20th century white America.  His moderate success means little to him and the substance of his job seems faded and less than real compared to his preferred pastimes of going to movie theaters and half-heartedly seducing his secretaries.  Like Kierkagaard—the philosopher who hovers over this novel like a cloud—Percy’s Christianity is not of the surface sort.  The reader finds neither O’Connor’s gothic theology nor J.F. Powers’ keenly observed religious satires.  Instead Percy paints a vivid portrait of modern despair: people lost in a present neither Christian nor Pagan, stuck in meaningless conversations and becoming Anybody in Anyplace rather than Somebody in Someplace.

Binx Bolling notes the curious effect he experiences when a movie is filmed in a particular neighborhood: the place is, in his words, “certified.”  It has become Someplace.  But this feeling fades too.  During the week of Mardi Gras he commences a vaguely defined “search”: not a beatnik romp through the nation’s highways, but a baffled surrender to the force of circumstance which takes him and his secretary to the Gulf Coast and eventually a train ride to Chicago with his step-cousin, Kate, the only character who shares his peculiar despair.

Kate shares his opinion that it is only in the face of disaster that life can lift itself out of the grey and into the primary colors of reality.  He gravitates towards those who straddle this line between worlds, like his half-brother Lonnie, an intensely religious young man enduring the final stages of some wasting disease.  “His life is a serene business,” Binx observes.

But this is a novel of journeys, not destinations, “What is the nature of the search you ask?  The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”  To Binx Bolling, even this most important of matters can hardly be described for what it is.  Like the Greeks thinking about God, his life is only defined by the throbbing nothing which surrounds it.

The success of The Moviegoer is its fluent description of feelings for which we have no language to describe.  It is not theology, or at least not exactly theology, but the expanse of ill-defined need in the human soul.  The novel is remarkably subtle.  On first reading, some will find it as dull as a well-designed chair.  The percolations under the surface of the prose haunt the reader like clues. 

Perhaps it is illuminating to note Walker Percy’s conversion:  The story goes that there was no great revelation in his own life.  Rather, this young man beset by tragedies of his own observed over time with bemusement, and then wonder, that his roommate tenaciously attended Mass every day.

Bernanos wrote of a Country Priest trying to shock his rural parish out of a deep melancholy.  O’Connor’s best stories reveal the brutality of true grace.  At heart, The Moviegoer humbly tills that same earth.  In transcending the “everydayness” of his life, Binx Bolling achieves something of a kind of metanoia.  One could argue that he remains unchanged.  His soul, however, is without a doubt deepened. 

This is not a parable.  This is real life.

ISBN-13: 978-0375701962
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8.3 inches

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Robert Short studied economics at Brown University and is currently the shipper/receiver at a jewelry factory.  He lives in Pawtucket, Rhode Island with his wife, his incomplete novel, and a slowly dying Venus flytrap.  After a misspent youth and young manhood he was led back to the Church by his mother's prayers and the sudden appearance of the Most Blessed Sacrament in a Stop n Shop parking lot.  He belongs to the St. Raymond's parish on North Main Street.  His ideal novel is The Great Gatsby.  His ideal short story is "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver.  He claims that his favorite gospel is Mark, but he's just being difficult.

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