I admit that I do not fancy the practice of writing fiction in the present tense. This has been the trend -particularly in literary magazines- for well over a decade now. For Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front I was willing to overlook this: the book was that good. But for Walker Percy's 1961 opus The Moviegoer, the sin is one of several unpardonable.
Perhaps I exaggerate a tad. The Moviegoer is not a total loss, but falls far from the numerous reader testimonials proclaiming the book a work of genius. Where Percy excels is in his shrewd if somewhat arcane analysis of human nature, seen through the eyes of protagonist John Bickerson Bolling, aka "Binx." Binx spends much of the novel ruminating and reflecting on who he is, who he isn't, and who he's supposed to be. But identifying with this reluctant hero isn't so easy. Life as a stockbroker for a nearly 30 year old man in New Orleans, Louisiana is not that bad. Therefore neither Binx nor the reader sees any overwhelming need for Binx to exceed his expectations; he really hasn't any expectations. And this is the main reason that the book was so unsatisfying for me.
Binx is a boring character. By his own admission he has never done or achieved anything special. A perfect example is highlighted when he is describing an episode during his college fraternity days. An older, wiser fraternity brother by the name of Walter Wade-who, to be blunt, is something of an jackass- tells Binx how confident he is that Binx will make him and the brotherhood proud. "I believe he'll make us a good man," Wade tells the assembled frat boys. But Binx admits to readers in the following paragraph: "As it turned out, I did not make them a good man at all. I managed to go to college four years without acquiring a single honor (38)." One possible mark of distinction for Binx, however, is that he served his country as a lieutenant during the Korean War, and was wounded in combat. But he considers himself no hero. That he was an officer at all I found hard to believe, considering his overall character.
Binx may be a racist, as he refers to blacks in dated offensive terms like "negroes" and "negresses," but considering that the setting is 1961 New Orleans, this might not seem as blatantly offensive when taken in context. What is indefensible is his admission that when his landlady Mrs. Schexnaydre is not present, he occasionally gives one of her dogs "a tremendous kick in the ribs and send him yowling (77)". Granted, the same dog once bit him without provocation, but still. Also, he sometimes expounds upon subjects which serve no purpose save to disgust, as on page 101, when he relates to the reader: "A rumble has commenced in my descending bowel, heralding a tremendous defecation." Thanks for sharing, Binx.
Blinx's situation at the start of the "action" is this: he is summoned to his Aunt Emily and Uncle Jules' for a family meal and powwow. The latter, he accurately suspects, concerns his cousin Kate, Aunt Emily's stepdaughter. Kate has been through some serious ordeals, including the death in an automobile accident of her fiance, Lyell. Aunt Emily wants Blinx to take Kate to the upcoming Mardi Gras celebration, and in general, look after her. Through rather uninspiring plot twists and turns, Blinx formulates a spontaneous, bizarre plan which will either work wonders or cause complete pandemonium.
The main characters in The Moviegoer tend to be somewhat devoid of emotion, Blinx most of all. From the recollection of the death of his older brother, Scotty, to the death of his father much later, Blinx displays an appalling lack of grief. Similarly, when recounting the horrible car crash that claimed the life of her hapless betrothed, Kate displays a cavalier demeanor, even telling Blinx "[Lyell's death] gave me my life. That's my secret, just as the [Korean] war is your secret (58)." Another death occurs near the end of the story, albeit of a minor character, but one that should and doesn't upset Binx overly. Even his positive emotions are either lukewarm or false, like when he declares on page 67 "I am in love with Sharon Kincaid." Both the reader and he know that this is untrue. Two pages earlier he shares his true feelings about his current secretary: "Her bottom is so beautiful that once as she crossed the room to the cooler I felt my eyes smart with tears of gratitude." But his liaisons with Sharon -which consist of going to the movies and rolling around in the sand- are unsatisfying to the would-be paramours, the readers, and every licentious, hot-blooded American male. Sharon is preceded by a secretary named Linda.
For the reasons that I have enumerated, I do not recommend The Moviegoer, the inexplicable winner of the National Book Award for 1961. The story plods along at an uninspiring pace, and while I will not reveal the ending, I will disclose that the book hardly concludes with a flourish. I read this novel because a student whom I was tutoring was assigned the book for her 11th grade English class. If I had chanced to pick it up of my own volition, I would likely have set it down before I had finished half.
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