Culture At Large

Walker Percy and the 21st-century Moviegoer

Craig Mattson

Make no mistake, Walker Percy — the acclaimed Catholic novelist whose centenary we celebrate this year — wrote stories with conspicuous moral failings. Are there grounds for absolution? I think so, especially in regard to his 1962 National Book Award winner, The Moviegoer, whose reflections on late-modern media point us towards means of grace.

I remember the Virginia Beach bookstore where I first picked up The Moviegoer. It took me several readings before I grasped how this gently ironic, diffusely plotted novel worked. Tracing the pilgrimage of Binx Bolling, a 30-year-old stockbroker in New Orleans, the story meanders from Mardi Gras to Ash Wednesday, and from self-centered aestheticism towards self-giving faith. But for all its tacit Christianity, the novel evinces marked ethical defects. Percy’s women characters are by turns despairingly sexualized (like Binx’s secretaries), wryly neurotic (like Kate his depressive cousin) and aristocratically oblivious (like his grandly stoic Aunt Emily). The book renders African-American characters in similarly dismissive fashion: Mercer, Aunt Emily’s butler, functions as little more than an occasion for Binxian contempt of black upward mobility. Finally, Binx is casually hateful about the French Quarter’s gay residents. So it’s not hard to understand why Christopher Merkel writes, “No amount of Southern charm can gloss the not-so-latent racism, sexism and homophobia that surface throughout Bolling's story.”

Percy came to see some of his own stories’ blind spots, as his extensive interviews revealed. But he was nonetheless convinced that the human predicament runs deeper than political critique could articulate. Our problem is not just that we’re hateful or discriminatory, but that we are lost in the cosmos. The late-modern penchant for scientific rationalism has alienated us from the world, from each other and — perhaps worst of all — from ourselves. Consequently, nothing is so despairing as a Tuesday afternoon, around 4 p.m., that is sunk, as Percy would say, in everydayness.

Percy's reflections on late-modern media point us towards means of grace.

In The Moviegoer, Binx’s treatment for such malaise entails an idiosyncratic mode of movie watching. It works like this. You’re feeling afternoonishly bleak, so you catch a matinee of a second-rate flick. It doesn’t much matter what it is. “The fact is,” notes Binx, “I am quite happy in a movie, even in a bad movie.” Suddenly, in the middle of the film, you see something from your ordinary life onscreen — and your existence, abruptly charged with significance, becomes briefly livable again. It is, in Binx’s Kierkegaardian terminology, certified: “Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. 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.”

The hankering to be Somewhere anticipates our own malaise-coping today, not with matinees but with hours spent binge watching Netflix. Binx binges like this in his worst neurotic moments, when he gapes at his apartment television. His moviegoing quests, in contrast, take him out of his room into New Orleans cineplexes, looking for moments of belonging, not hours of lostness.

It is another character in The Moviegoer who speaks with special grace to today’s Netflixer: Binx’s paraplegic half-brother, Lonnie, who shares with Binx a devotion to moviegoing. At one point Binx takes his girlfriend and Lonnie to a drive-in show, propping Lonnie on the hood and against the windshield, where the lad keeps turning his head sideways to toss Binx wry grins at cowboy one-liners. Lonnie ultimately distinguishes himself by working to defeat his largely imperceptible moral failings. And when, in the final pages of the novel, Lonnie comes to die, Binx reassures his clan of the boy’s resurrection, adding that Lonnie had rejoiced just before his death to have overcome a besetting sin. Has Binx, newly awakened by this death, learned to care, not just about propping up his enfeebled self somewhere, but also about belonging to someone? It is, as the novel puts it, impossible to say. But it’s pretty clear that were Percy writing, say, The Netflixer today, his story would still be contrasting radiantly disruptive cinematic moments with the besetting intemperance of Netflix-and-chilling, hoping to nudge us from certification to sanctification.

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