A New Orleans book, I thought. Great! And it's one of those books that often appears on the "Top 100" lists.
In settling on Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, I figured I had requested a worthwhile Christmas gift. But as I struggled to finish it, weeks after unwrapping the book, I wasn't quite sure. Yes, it was well written - clearly the product of an agile, intellectual mind. But did I care about the characters? Did I care about the storyline at all?
Binx Bolling narrates what storyline there is, a sort of frustrated existentialism playing out in 1950s New Orleans. Or, more properly, a rather sterile Gentilly and flashes of the Gulf Coast. Allusions to New Orleans places and names are sprinkled in here and there, but the true aura of New Orleans is only glimpsed occasionally, obliquely, such as in Walker's random and belated description of Cothard, "the last of the chimney sweeps, an outlandish blueblack Negro dressed in a frock coat and bashed-in top hat and carrying over his shoulder a bundle of palmetto leaves and broom straw. The cry comes again. 'R-r-r-ramonez la chiminee du haut en bas!'"
Binx served in the Korean War, and at times we see that some of his trauma in the face of modernity stems from that service. But most of the time, he seems a bit shallow, a person of various neuroses who can be quite aloof in his slightly disdainful assessment of the world. He refers often to a nebulous search, something that appears to lie at the heart of his philosophical take on life. But sometimes he's simply downright annoying in all his sophistry. Not as bad as Rosa Coldfield, but still wearying.
But he is The Moviegoer, after all, the detached spectator the author seemingly intended, a cool, dark, calculating mind that finally blazes to life at the end of the book with haunting, frightening lines: "...and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall - on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire."
How cheerful. How satisfying. How useful. But, perhaps there's a shade of truth to the malaise that pervades the work - or at least it could be read as a distillation of man's plight in the atomic age of cinematic unreality, a slightly more hinged Howl.
But the bottom line is this: would I recommend this book? While I'd commend it to a few people I know would get particular things out of it, I would have to decline. It's certainly not a very good New Orleans book, the image of Comus' "shuddering floats" aside. It's a long, somewhat agonizing setup for the final fifty pages. And it's not a satisfying book. If it's an existentialist work, as a number of reviews seem to indicate, then it's an existensialism that hasn't lifted itself up out of despair.
Functionally, Binx's life seems mostly what Binx's aunt condemns it as: "What do you think is the purpose of life - to go to the movies and dally with every girl that comes along?" That and driving along the coast in a convertible.
The aunt's towering, conservative, and very Southern monologue near the end of the book is perhaps the most stirring, almost Shakespearean thing in the whole work. Binx and his troubled cousin Kate, by contrast, left me wondering which of them was the more pitiful. They crawl across the book as if they're the only two in on the joke - the existentialist and the mentally unstable one. They hide from the unbearable madness of the world and clutch at each other. Still I can't help but raise my eyebrows quizzically and sort of chuckle at them. I don't know. I don't quite buy it. Life is what it is - find a way forward.