Rounding out our troupe of Walker Percy birthday and Moviegoer anniversary guest bloggers is my former college professor, friend, and Percy scholar par excellence, John Desmond. Dr. Desmond is professor emeritus at Whitman College and author of Walker Percy’s Search for Community and At the Crossroads: Ethical and Religious Themes in the Writings of Walker Percy.
The near fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Moviegoer set me to pondering why the novel is still around, especially when so many good novels of similar vintage have already have been re-remaindered into extinction. New generations of readers seem constantly to discover Percy’s novel, experience its wonder, and walk away half-dazed by its subtle and mysterious effect on their lives. What accounts for this? I suppose many would account for it by citing its warm humor, its wonderful satire, its humbling but empathic treatment of Binx Bolling and his compatriots, its existential honesty, its philosophical acuity, its unique vision of American culture, and so on. But for me, the enduring success of the novel can finally only be accounted for by the great secret at the heart of the book, the secret that Percy discovered and rendered as no other American novel had quite managed before and perhaps since.
What is the secret? It is both simple and profound. Percy brought to life the great truth that the mystery is in the present, in the here and now. The secret is there to be experienced, but like Hamlet’s mystery, never to be “plucked out,” but only to be enjoyed and pondered by new readers generation after generation.
Hoorah for Walker Percy, and happy birthday!
File under: “You can’t fight in here – this is the war room!”
of buildings fill the street
like lovers lying back onto sheets, woes
…but Jeb O’Brian, the soon-to-be famous poet/novelist who appears beside a bumper crop of shining lights in the newest installment of Dappled Things. Step right up, step right up….
Nick Ripatrazone is the author of Oblations and the proprietor of The Fine Delight where he moderates an ongoing series of interviews with notable Catholic writers. Nick’s writing has appeared in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, West Branch, The Mississippi Review, National Catholic Reporter, Caketrain, Sou’wester, Annalemma, The Collagist, SmokeLong Quarterly and Beloit Fiction Journal. As part of our celebration of Walker Percy’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of The Moviegoer, we invited Nick to contribute a piece and he was kind enough to take a break from his other projects and oblige us with this look at the novel’s ending.
The final section of The Moviegoer occurs during a landmark in Binx’s life: “today is my 30th birthday.” Binx has just taken his step-cousin, Kate, to Chicago. They slept together on the train there, and upon his return to New Orleans, Binx receives an infamous ribbing from his Aunt Emily, the same woman who asked for Binx’s help earlier in the novel: “I want you to do whatever it was you did before you walked out on us, you wretch. Fight with her, joke with her–the child doesn’t laugh.” Binx is now broken and quiet: “my search has been abandoned; it is no match for my aunt, her rightness and despair, her despairing of me and her despairing of herself.”
“It is Ash Wednesday”: the genesis of Lent looms over the entirety of the novel. Binx sits with Kate in her car, a 1951 Plymouth, outside of a church. Marriage is on their horizon; Aunt Emily’s judgment looms. Binx shrugs: “There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons.”
Binx’s opportunity arrives in the form of “a florid new Mercury” and a man “more respectable than respectable; he is more middle-class than one could believe.” Percy’s choice of a black Catholic at this juncture in a largely white novel might be easily misread. But the choice is absolutely appropriate and necessary. The man’s blackness ferments him socioeconomically, an identity so closely wedded to his community spiritual frame. Additionally, Binx has self-identified–in a largely light-hearted way–as a populist-capitalist, a “citizen” of America firmly in the majority. Percy’s social concerns stretched beyond the page: he was deemed “very active” in trying to “put an end to some of the social hardships of being black” in Covington, Louisiana (Walker Percy Remembered).
Percy returns to the conversation, and Kate’s roundabout way of proclaiming her love for Binx: “I’m frightened when I am alone and I am frightened when I am with people. The only time I’m not frightened is when I’m with you.” All the while, Kate has been “plucking at her thumb in earnest, tearing away little shreds of flesh.” Her body is revealed at the start of the season when the Catholic body is made new.
The narrative then moves back, again, to the action of the man exiting the church. It is the final part of the novel proper, and worth quoting in full:
“The Negro has already come outside. His forehead is an ambiguous sienna color and pied: it is impossible to be sure that he received ashes. When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something on the seat beside him. A sample case? An insurance manual? I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?
It is impossible to say.”
An epilogue exists for The Moviegoer, but I pay it little mind. The book is finished with those 5 words, and that most complicated image and concept: will we ever know when God has been met and experienced? Binx accepts the unknowing; he proceeds forward on faith. He has become, finally, Catholic.
J.B. Toner is a graduate of the school of hard knocks, author of The Bent Universe, and frequent contributor to Dappled Things. Mr. Toner guest posted here at Korrektiv back in December and we’re delighted that he has returned to contribute, with his usual vigor and verve, to our celebration of Walker Percy’s birthday and the 50th annivesary of The Moviegoer.
Everything begins with a question. Is a seeker, an exile, one who accepts himself as lost, a hundred miles ahead of or a hundred miles behind those overwhelming millions who feel they’ve found God and, in acquiring, locked Him in a hoard and ceased to look at Him? Bolling professes ignorance, but Percy himself is clearly prepared to take a stab at the answer. Tepidity is the malaise, and the “malaisians” (frown: does he mean people from May—ohhhh, I see) are mostly content to float along in the brine, half-alive, letting the mud of the City of Man keep the flies off. “No more heart’s desire for her, thank you.” The “haters” are alive, Binx contends. Kate, sustained by the ever-present option of suicide, is alive after a fashion. He himself slouches from day to day grubbing for money and sex as an attenuated stimulant, caffeine for a speed-freak (“We have to get out of this hole, boys! Dig faster!”)—but he has at least the sense to perceive that only disaster can break the hold of the quotidian, the “everydayness.” You could go so far as to argue that the only really whole person in the story is Lonnie, the dying cripple, sort of a Tiny Tim Catholicized out of his Dickensian mawkishness: freed from the everyday by virtue of existing in a continual state of disaster. But for my money, I’ll take Aunt Emily. (We can’t all be child-saints, after all.) She may not have Lonnie’s humility—okay, she definitely doesn’t have Lonnie’s humility—but by God, the woman’s got heart. “In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is the victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.” Yes! Death is the mother of beauty. Luck often enough will save a man if his courage holds. Fill your hands, you son of a bitch! There’s certainly nothing wrong with going to the movies—as long as one does so, whether for rest or inspiration, in between fighting the monsters. It doesn’t seem to occur to Kate, for example, to try volunteering at a soup kitchen: entering other people’s disasters to help bring life to both them and herself. She won’t thereby end poverty, hunger, misery; that is not the destiny of goodness on earth. But better a defeated hero than a victorious monster—and better anything at all than a Moviegoer. I like to think Binx gets that by the end.
Betty Duffy is a prolific and incisive blogger and a mother of five. Her blog profile states the case as follows: “Married with five kids. Life has been handed to me on a platter and I still manage to find fault with it. Except when I don’t.” She has been rereading The Moviegoer from both ends of late, working her way towards the middle. Out of that interesting approach, she generously agreed to contribute the following reflection as part of our celebration of Walker Percy’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of The Moviegoer. She has also recently written about The Moviegoer here.
It’s difficult to measure The Moviegoer at fifty without weighing it against the effects of the new media. As I’ve become a bits and pieces consumer of online information, I have also become a bits and pieces reader of actual books. So I’ve interspersed my reading of Walker Percy with the other books that have found their way to my nightstand.
If Kate Cutrer, the penultimate depressed girl, hugging her knees saying, “I’m scared. Tell me I’ll be ok,” was not a cinematic and literary phenomenon in Percy’s time, she is now. Here she is again, in Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel, sitting on the bathroom floor freaking out while a crowd of worried onlookers wonder what to do about her.
Most of the characters in Percy’s book have a role to play, a role perhaps first modeled on film. Binx woos women in the tradition of “Gregorish Peckorish”-ness. Aunt Emily plays the matriarch of upper-crust liberal values, an archetype echoed in Murial Spark’s Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. When Binx speaks to Kate on the phone, it’s in the litigious, brief way of cops in a film noir.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Here we are fifty years later, still playing established roles that give us the words to say and the template for how to be—but with a new, most excellent platform for becoming the stars of our own lives, the internet.
As a writer and reader of personal blogs and Facebook pages, I have noticed that we are all happy housewives, and good Catholics (or bad Catholics as the case may be), or we are tech gurus, or spiritual gurus, or witty quip-writers of some kind or another. Online we play our roles very well, and often with much applause in our comboxes. Which is probably why we come back to it again and again, with crack-addict intensity, for the affirmation that we are succeeding at being who we desire to be.
It has always been the role of the writer to transcend reality for the sake of the art, to create alternate realities where the narrative can maintain the coherence of a dream. Percy knew this, which is probably why he made Binx a moviegoer—someone on “the search” for the way of being where fantasy and reality can merge. The fantasy is all light and tidy endings. The reality is often quiet, dark rooms where unresolved conflicts take place, where people ask you questions and don’t listen to your answers.
Binx’s search draws him to Kate, a broken woman who can give him no guarantee of happiness, a woman whose great epiphany is that “a person does not have to be this or be that or be anything, not even oneself. One is free.”
Personally, I’d prefer, for the time being, to remain “Betty Duffy.”
Patrick Samway, S.J. is the author of Walker Percy: A Life and the editor of Signposts in a Strange Land (a collection of essays by Percy) and A Thief of Peirce (correspondence between Percy and Peirce scholar Ken Ketner). We caught up with Fr. Samway in Chad, where he has been serving as priest for the past year, and he graciously agreed to contribute this piece and another one (which we’ll post in a few days) as part of our celebration of Walker Percy’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of The Moviegoer. Fr. Samway’s current projects include a book on Flannery O’Connor and a collection of the letters of John Berryman and Robert Giroux. In what follows, Fr. Samway explores the impact Percy had as an occasional college professor. After some general remarks, the discussion zeroes in on the novel Alexandra—by Percy’s former student Valerie Martin—and the evident influence The Moviegoer had on Martin’s creation of the character Claude.
Because of some innate sense of seeking both emotional balance and intellectual stimulation, and aided by the encouragement of family and friends, Walker Percy deliberately participated in activities that forced him to venture outside the seclusion of either his home in Covington, Louisiana—and for short periods of time, his three writing studios. For many years, he lunched with a small group of male friends on Wednesdays, while on the following day he lunched at Bechac’s with younger writers and artists of one sort or another. With wife “Bunt” he enjoyed book-discussion groups, and for a while they both were part of two separate groups.
Walker enjoyed teaching university students, though he had some reservations about his teaching capabilities. He taught for two semesters (fall of 1974 and winter of 1975) at Louisiana State University, where his students included novelist Elizabeth Nell Dubus (sister of Andre Dubus, père), literary critic Huey Guagliardo, and poets Wyatt Prunty and Leo Luke Marcello. He later taught for one semester at a local seminary in 1983. Refusing the post as writer-in-residence during his productive years at such prestigious institutions of higher learning as Yale, Stanford, Lehigh, Williams, and Indiana University, Walker also taught twice at Loyola University in New Orleans (fall of 1967 and fall of 1976). When he first taught at Loyola, The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman had been published, and he felt prepared to offer a seminar, one that he described as a medical-pathological, psychiatric, anthropological approach to modern fiction. Though he was busy writing Love in the Ruins, the composition of which was clearly influenced by the visit to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton that summer, Walker and his seven students read and discussed works by Dostoevsky, Sartre, Camus, Hemingway, Faulkner, Styron, Ellison, Robbe-Grille, Edward L. Wallant, and Flannery O’Connor.
By the time he met with his 12 students in his second round at Loyola, he was correcting the galleys of Lancelot and ostensibly pretending not to be excited about the possibility of having The Moviegoer made into a commercial film, though deep down, as he once told me, he saw the future income from this cinematic project as a way of paying for his daughters’ college educations. This time, with the encouragement of Dawson Gaillard of Loyola’s English Department, he taught a course on creative writing, knowing full well the limitations of such a course. Advertised locally, and thus inundated with approximately 150 manuscripts in various stages of progress, this course provided Walker with more work than he had anticipated, though he delighted in the later successes of his students. Walter Isaacson, a Harvard graduate and a former Rhodes Scholar at Pembroke College, then working in New Orleans as a reporter for The States-Item, eventually became the managing editor of Time magazine and a journalism professor at Columbia. W. Kenneth Holditch, retired Research Professor in the English Department at the University of New Orleans, distinguished himself as a critic of Southern literary works, particularly in the theatrical works of Tennessee Williams. Larry Gray, armed already with a doctorate in English from the University of Notre Dame when Walker first met him, wrote plays and taught for years at Southeastern Louisiana University at Hammond. His former colleague, Tim Gautreaux, and Valerie Martin, likewise a successful writer of fiction, are perhaps Walker’s two former students most recognized for their creative talents as writers of fiction.
Just a word about Valerie Martin, because I am a big fan of her fiction. Born in Missouri, she moved to New Orleans, when she was about three, attended high school there, and graduated from the University of New Orleans in 1970, followed by graduate work at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She later taught for six years at U.N.O., where she caught up with her former professor Ken Holditch. After finishing Set in Motion in 1975, which Walker had read piecemeal and for which he wrote a blurb, Martin enrolled in his class, after reading a notice about it in a local newspaper. (Walker later refused to give her a blurb for A Recent Martyr.) Her work-in-progress, a novel called Alexandra, did not particularly appeal to Walker, as she later told me. Martin, who never felt particularly close to Walker and, unlike some of Walker’s other students, never visited him at his home in Covington, believed that The Moviegoer was livelier and more mature than Love in the Ruins. Curiously, she was modeling, as she told me, the narrator of Alexandra, Claude, on Walker. Though, she was more taken with Walker’s characters than with his own personality, it is not difficult to see the resemblance between Claude and Percy’s Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer. In fact, Walker called her one day, and commented, somewhat questioningly about Claude: “I don’t know. This Claude guy. Kind of a loser,” which Martin heuristically interpreted to mean that Claude was “too affable.” “What I got mostly from his class and his fiction,” she told me, “were basic attitudes that would permeate my work.”
But more is at stake, I believe. Like Binx, 49-year-old Claude, whose life can be summed up by “penny-pinching, joyless tedium,” seeks the company of unmarried women, and in the case of Alexandra, a beautiful woman (and illegitimate orphan who earns her living tending bar in the French Quarter), he accompanies her to an island close off Covington, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, due north of New Orleans. Walker lived then in Covington, a town mentioned by name in Martin’s novel. Alex’s pregnant friend, Diana, lives in isolated bliss, apart from the father of her child, whom she has dismissed. Though curiously attracted to Diana, Claude and Alex have moments of powerful and sustained sexual passion. Yet, at times, Claude questions whether or not Alex and Diana have a lesbian relationship.
The maze on Diana’s property becomes the novel’s central metaphor, and one is not sure whether Claude ever finds his way out. At the novel’s conclusion, as Alex has decided to return to New Orleans, she speaks with Binx’s emotional accent: “Alexandra. If I had known what you would cost me I never would have laid a hand on you. I thought I was acquainted with the dreariness of life, with my own dull prospects, but it was nothing to this. Anything would be easier to endure. But this tedium, this lifelessness, this utter sense of loss. What does it matter where I do, what I do, having somehow, through some oversight lost you. I’ve lost it all. I’m perfectly free, thanks to you, my sweet love, my cruel intolerant mistress. I hope the integrity is worth this price to you, but the truth is I care nothing for it.”
In fact Claude seems to extract little insight into his relationship with Alex, or Diana, for that matter, whose child he delivers on a boat, in a scene that has certain, though less cosmic, links with Faulkner’s story “Old Man,” in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. Martin’s description of childbirth constitutes the most original writing in this novel.
Like Percy’s Lancelot, Alexandra can be considered a confessional and mystery novel, whose unresolved subplot concerns a friend of Alex—a Claude-look-alike—who takes Diana to a motel on Airline Highway and binds her hands behind her back, with the intention of filming this incident. Alex, who just happens to be skilled at throwing knives, arrives in time to save Diana. It was later thought by Banjo, himself an obscure character who lives on Diana’s property, that Alex stabbed Alex’s friend—though Claude, and thus the reader, never knows for sure if such a man existed at all. It might be argued, I believe, that the death of a film buff might have been inspired by Walker’s novel. And contrary to the tenuous, but totally appropriate conclusion of The Moviegoer, which puts Binx and Kate in an asymptotical relationship that moves into an unseen future, Claude’s future seems highly unpredictable, almost as if his relationships with Alex and Diana—like Binx’s with his secretaries Sharon, Marcia, and Linda—existed in a social and emotional vacuum. Martin’s Claude is a more sexually involved Binx redivivus, without Kate’s psychologically fragile human magnetism that pulls Binx toward values that can ground his future life.
Like Nancy Lemann and Chris Wiltz, Sheila Bosworth considered herself one of Walker’s students, though she never took a class from him. But of the women who were in Walker’s classes, Valerie Martin stands out as the most accomplished writer of fiction. Walker’s students have continued to grow as fiction writers in directions proper to each, and each willingly has acknowledged a debt to a person they knew and admired. What he most gave them was an opportunity to be in his presence and allow them the freedom to grow in ways only they could perceive.
Patrick Samway, S.J.
Walker Percy was born on this date in 1916 and died in 1990. I’d like to believe he is smiling down on Korrektiv Press and putting in a good word for us now and then. In celebration both of his birthday and of the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Moviegoer, Korrektiv has invited several of our favorite writers and Percy aficionados from around the blogosphere and elsewhere to contribute their musings on Percy and/or his auspicious first novel. Over the course of the next few days, we’ll be posting pieces from the likes of Patrick Samway, John Desmond, Betty Duffy, J.B. Toner, and Nick Ripatrazone. Maybe even the Kollektiv (or at least a younger version of one of its members) will get off its collective duff and write a few words! To kick things off, let’s hear from the good doctor himself. Here is Walker Percy’s forward to the Franklin Library edition of The Moviegoer:
The writing of The Moviegoer came about as a consequence of the happy conjunction of several unhappy circumstances. These circumstances included exhaustion, disgust, failure, surrender, boredom with writing in general, mine in particular, and the first inklings of an important discovery. The discovery was that no law of God or man required me to write otherwise than it pleased me to write. It did not matter what Faulkner had done. It did not matter what Dostoevski had done. It did not matter what critics had said. It did not matter what rules of composition had been laid down. Not even good advice mattered—and I had gotten some very good advice from some very generous and competent writers: do this, do that, for God’s sake don’t do the other. The best thing to do with advice, even good advice, is to listen as hard as you can, take it to heart, then forget it.
I had written two novels. One was a sort of Southern bildungsroman, Thomas Wolfe transplanted from Carolina to Mississippi and not traveling well, a good deal of soul-searching, a good many passages of beautiful prose. It ran about eleven hundred pages. The other novel was a small Magic Mountain, a hillock. Hans Castorp was magically reincarnated on an unmagic alp in the Adirondacks. Sickness and sex were rendered. Autopsies were performed. The nature of evil was explored. The nature of life and death were gotten at.
Neither novel was very bad, though not good enough that I could ever bring myself to read them. Both followed established novelistic practice and were consciously freighted with the tradition of Wolfe and Mann and other, better writers. Fortunately they were not published.
Failure is not a bad thing, as long as it is recognized as such. The good thing about failure recognized as such is that thereafter there is nothing to lose. The failed person is free to please himself. He is his own man.
Why then not set out from zero, stranded, which was where I found myself and was where I put Binx Bolling in this novel? Why not strike out as if no novel had been written before, as if it were a new world? In fact it was a new world. Binx was stranded in a sense between traditions, between worlds, between the old modern world and the world to come. Everyone else in the novel was stranded, too. The difference was that Binx knew it and they didn’t. Since he knew he was stranded and was not afraid to know it, his world became as fresh and unexplored and inviting as if it were newly made. He set forth like Crusoe.
I sat on the back porch of a shotgun cottage in New Orleans, overlooking a rank, overgrown patio. I wrote the first sentence of The Moviegoer. It had a sly, flat—yet cheerful—tone which pleased me.
Covington, Louisiana, 1980