Title: The Moviegoer. Author: Walker Percy. Release Year: 1961
Opening up The Moviegoer, you may expect to be whisked away to a world unlike your own, but will find that despite its setting–New Orleans long before Katrina–Walker Percy’s novel might as well be about you. The central character is Binx Bolling, who, apart from his alliterative name, has little to distinguish himself from those around him. He spends his days wandering around town and his nights watching movies. In some ways, Binx resembles everyone you’ve ever met.
What sets Binx apart, as Walker Percy is ever ready to point out, is that the interior of his mind is a unique and one-of-a-kind place. Evidence of this comes in the form of Binx’s narration, which throughout the book resembles a combination of Saul Bellow’s chattiness with William Faulkner’s predilection for big themes, a synthesis that doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s impressive.
Really, the writing throughout the relatively short novel is consistently impressive, not only for it’s attention to detail but for the way it captures the narrators thoughts, even those that aren’t pretty. We’re given a cross-section of what flits through Binx’ brain on any given day, and Walker Percy makes the gutsy move to include bits that could very well make it harder for us to like Binx, such as his straying hints of racism as well as a tendency to objectify women, secretaries in particular.
Outside of Binx’s near-complete self-absorption, there’s a memorable cast of characters including the narrator’s prurient mother and his lovely cousin Kate who speaks as if she just wandered out of a Tennessee Williams play. Throughout the novel, Kate struggles with an unnamed mental disorder which prompts the narrator to devote himself to finding a way to cure her, that is, when he’s not too busy having brief and insubstantial relationships with a parade of secretaries.
The heroic flaw of Walker Percy’s novel is its prose. It has the ability to enlighten and entertain the reader, but at the same time it makes the plot seem as if it is only of secondary importance. Hence, much of The Moviegoer contains no real suspense or rising action per se and instead contains a near-endless amount of digressions and tangents, many of which were brilliant, but overall had the effect of occluding the story itself.
My interest in the character of Kate as well as my love of classic films was enough to keep me reading, but The Moviegoer was by no means a page-turner. Much of the time I spent reading the novel revolved around waiting eagerly for the real story to start, but that didn’t seem to happen until the last 30 pages or so. This was Walker Percy’s first novel, and it shows. By that, I don’t mean in terms of his voice or his writing skills–in those fields, he emerges as a maverick–but in terms of structure he is sorely lacking, as so much of The Moviegoer felt like the introduction to a fiction novel. Even in the late chapters of the book, new characters are introduced.
The Moviegoer will inevitably appeal to moviegoers, and the highlights of the novel were definitely the scenes where Binx waxed nostalgic over his love of film stars. Otherwise, the book is not for everyone, especially those who require a strong story and a fast pace. I would say just rent the movie, but no such adaptation exists, as no film could capture the mercurial beauty of Walker Percy’s prose, nor could a film be made from such a threadbare plot.
—-If you’re looking for something else to read, why not take a chance on my novel A Rapturous Occasion?
If you’ve read The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, what was your opinion of it?