Monday, September 16, 2013

Books Like Whoa: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Musing on an excellent piece of Southern literature...

The Moviegoer
by Walker Percy

Procured from the Regent Bookstore 

Procured in May 2013

Finished in August 2013

Format: Trade paperback 

Why I gave it a try: I've been told repeatedly that, along with Flannery O'Connor, who I just adore, Walker Percy is the height of Catholic Southern fiction. And that this is his definitive work. So I was like, ehrmagerd, I gotta check this out.

Summary: Binx Bolling's life is fine. It's great, as a matter of fact, from the outside looking in. Good job, beautiful secretaries/lovers, a rich, quirky family who are active in New Orleans social life. But as he approaches his thirtieth birthday, the lingering sense of aimlessness that's always nagged at the fringes of his mind comes to bear. Along with his mentally unstable cousin, Kate, he's about to be confronted with the consequences of a life lived without purpose.

Thoughts: My reading experience of this book was greatly enhanced by the fact that I read it on the train between Vancouver and Portland. There's something wonderful about being physically in a borderland type space reading about existential angst. Being in transit by yourself feels like kind of putting your own life on hold and being able to see it at a distance - you're neither fully removed from things nor fully engaged in them. Basically, it's the perfect mood to watch someone else ruin their life through inertia. 

Binx is an engaging narrator, describing the people in his world with warmth and humor. Though he finds all of them (and even himself) rather silly, he doesn't judge them. In that respect, he's the opposite of Nick in The Great Gatsby. Though there are some truly batshit crazy people in his life, he just kind of rolls with the punches and accepts them for who they are. 

Live and let live
The moviegoing of the title comes up occasionally, with Binx slowly realizing why it is that he prefers seeing even a bad movie to living his own life. Movies come to symbolize his disengagement with his world and his reluctance to commit to his life. And that's what the heart of this book is about: when you don't believe in or really care about anything, what's the impetus to be present for the people around you or commit to your own future? Though he's well into adulthood, in many ways, The Moviegoer is a coming of age story, both for Binx and his cousin Kate. They have to find something to commit to and believe in or else they will remain permanently adrift in apathy and insanity.

Binx seems like he could almost be a dopier version of one of Dashiell Hammett's hard boiled detectives at times. However, Percy hints at the soft heart that lies beneath Binx's indifferent exterior through his relationship with a chronically ill younger brother. Their interactions, alongside his brief flashes to his war service in Korea, suggest that Binx's seeming apathy may be masking a wounded man whose desire to believe has been damaged but not totally destroyed. 

This is the kind of book that some people are just going to hate - it's not a plot heavy book, so if you don't like the tone, themes, and characters, there's not much to hang your hat on. I, however, loved the writing and the whole ball of wax. Percy also evokes the South wonderfully in his writing - I can always tell whether or not Southern literature is working if it makes me feel the humidity and see the heat rising up off of the cars and asphalt. He captures the limpid feeling of ennui that I love in both existential novels and Southern lit: for me, at least, that combination is why this book deserves to be a modern classic.

It's not a book for everyone - but it was definitely a book for me. I'm looking forward to reading more from Percy (I think the next one for me will be Love in the Ruins, as I've heard that even more of Percy's humor comes through).


5 - It's really good; well written and pleasurable 

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