I Was Binx Bolling
Feeling like the title character in The Moviegoer, I was at a crossroads – a perfect time to spend a day in Highlands, North Carolina with Walker Percy.
My first Walker Percy sighting occurred at a book party in New Orleans. On a summer day in 1977 a lamentation of southern liberals had gathered at a grand old home in the Garden District to celebrate the publication of a memoir Percy had helped midwife, Brother to a Dragonfly, by Rev. Will D. Campbell, the self-described bootleg preacher and civil rights activist. I was the editorial cartoonist for the Charlotte Observer at the time, and had gotten to know Will Campbell during the Carter campaign for presidency when he escorted a posse of cartoonists — Jules Feiffer, Mike Peters, and me — on a sort of fact-finding, hell-raising tour of the South. Campbell, who was notorious for his ministry to outsiders and renegades — Klansmen, Black Muslims, draft resisters, outlaw country singers, even cartoonists — had sweetened the invitation to the party for his book in the Crescent City with hints that the famously shy and reclusive Walker Percy, who lived in nearby Covington, would be there. In the words of the poet Hank Williams, I was all like, “Goodbye, Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh.”
I had devoured all of Walker Percy’s novels — The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, Lancelot, his latest at the time, and even his philosophical ruminations on language and semiotics such as The Delta Factor and Message in the Bottle — but The Moviegoer was my favorite. I had read it so many times I practically knew it by heart. As Holden Caulfield says in Catcher in the Rye. “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
I knew exactly how Holden felt. I was convinced Walker Percy had written my life. Binx Bolling was the protagonist of his first novel, The Moviegoer, about an abstracted young man approaching thirty, privileged, professionally successful, lives in a New Orleans suburb called Gentilly, manages his uncle’s brokerage firm, has a knack for making money, drives a little sports car, writes letters to the editor, goes to the movies, and spends most of his time dallying with the Lindas, Marcias, and Sharons who work for him. But something is amiss. Binx is alienated, cut off from himself, unable to commit, lost in the cosmos. Walker Percy wrote about what it felt like, to me, to be alive in the twentieth century, i.e., dead. A portrait of the artist as a young man: I remember once lying on the beach in Martinique at one of those Club Med vacation resorts reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I was Binx Bolling.
The Moviegoer was the book that made me want to write novels long before I knew I wanted to write. In the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, Bob Dylan describes the performers who influenced him as a young man. “There was something in their eyes that would say, ‘I know something you don’t,’ and I wanted to be that kind of performer.” Percy had a similar effect. Except that he knew something that you did, but weren’t able to articulate. He was letting you in on your secret. His writing nailed something essential about the age. The Moviegoer was so fresh, so contemporary, so universal, so timely and timeless that I couldn’t believe a Southerner wrote it. Percy’s voice burst forth from a past-besotted culture, seeming so rooted yet so thoroughly modern.
The scene in The Moviegoer when the young couple encounters the actor William Holden in the French Quarter is iconic. The young man lights the actor’s cigarette, and in that act reclaims title to his own existence. In that transaction their contact with celebrity is experienced as a moment of transcendence, a numinous force that exalts them for the rest of the day. In that perfectly paced, exquisitely observed scene early in the book, Percy identifies the essence of modern man’s estrangement from himself and the symptom of that spiritual dis-ease that would consume us into the next century, metastasize into the black plague of celebrity worship, a pestilence of the soul that would degenerate into bald Britney’s hair sold on e-Bay and hourly cable news updates on the decomposition of Anna Nicole Smith’s body.
In The Moviegoer Percy made religion and spiritual yearning seem subversive and glamorous in an odd way, imbued it with a sense of quest — “the search” as he calls it. “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk into the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” His epigraph from Kierkegaard captures it perfectly: “. . . the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.”