Living in a Flat-Screen World??

Posted: August 3, 2013 in World On The Edge

The MoviegoerRecently, I re-read The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I’d read it  many years ago–because it had won The National Book Award and because Percy was a southerner from New Orleans, a Catholic, and a physician.

I liked the book, but in my naïve and youthful perspective, it was just a story about a man who went to movies to see himself in the lives of movie stars. I didn’t understand much about life back then. I didn’t know that life can turn on you and that you have to have an absolute anchor or the currents will steer you where you don’t intend to go. Now I realize all that was Percy’s theme in the novel.

Though it was written decades ago, The Moviegoer has much to say about today’s reality-show-world whose ‘stars’ are heroes to many. It speaks to the values that we DON’T expect from Hollywood or from the flat-screened, superficial world of television that we follow. In the novel, this is the kind of world the main character, Binx Bolling, has taken for his own reality, but it’s a reality he begins to question: Why is he here? What is his purpose?

Binx initiates a personal ‘search’ for answers he never seems to find because he looks in the wrong places. In his mind, he converses with a screen star– Rory Calhoun, a popular actor of Percy’s time—about sex, about money; all important to Binx. His drug-addicted paramour and cousin, Kate, claims to be part of Binx’s search, too, but what she wants is Binx to tell her what to do. She’s a follower,  too afraid  to“act” on her own. In fact, neither of them have the courage or stamina to “act.” Both have come through tragedy—Binx the Korean War, Kate the loss of someone she may have loved. Their hard times have made them searchers, but still, they use excuses to avoid being decisive.

Walker Percy’s descriptions of place, especially New Orleans, as well as every character playing on the screen of Binx’s mind, are close to impeccable. There is no question of what Percy wants us to see–that Binx does not take in the true, indeed divine, essence of life, in himself or in others. The one exception is his half-brother, Lonnie, who of all his family members, is the bonus in Binx’s life.

Finally, in the last pages of the book, it is Ash Wednesday, and Percy sets forth serious questions for Binx, and for his readers. Binx isn’t watching a movie, but a black man coming out of church.

“His forehead is an ambiguous sienna color and pied: it is impossible to be sure that he received ashes.… 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.”

Walker Percy is a Catholic writer of the highest sort. His handling of the first-person narrative is wonderful. His insight into people is brilliant. The Moviegoer is powerful for many reasons—not the least is that it stirs the reader’s consideration of a ‘search’  into his own, perhaps flat-screen, reality. Even if you’ve read it before, another read is well worth it.

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