New Orleans is America’s most European city. It seems fitting that our most European novelist would call New Orleans home.
Walker Percy exploded onto the literary scene in 1962 with the publication of The Moviegoer, his first novel. His book captured the National Book Award that year, and it set Percy up as a sort of philosopher-fictioneer, something on the order of Albert Camus, southern style.
Camus, of course, was French Algerian. He wasn’t from the Deep South, like Percy. He wasn’t born in Alabama or raised among liberal Presbyterians. He didn’t convert to Catholicism, as Walker Percy did. As far as I know, Camus’s father and grandfather died of natural causes, unlike Percy’s father and grandfather, who unnaturally died at their own hands of depression mixed with firearms, that sad concoction. Camus also didn’t have a mother, like Percy’s, who drove herself off a bridge in Mississippi and drowned, another likely suicide.
The best way to understand the European-ism, if that’s a word, can be summed up neatly in a line from a later Percy novel, The Second Coming: Percy’s narrator says this: Peace is only better than war … if peace is not hell too.
European fiction is more idea-centric than American, at least in the mainstream. Camus, for example, wrote of men and women who toil toward their goals under what he called the “benign indifference of the universe.” The French writer’s most famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” explores the futility and yet the nobility of the mythological Greek who was cursed to an afterlife of rolling a heavy stone to the top of a hill where – each and every time – it rolled back down again. Over and over, for all eternity, rock and roll.
Percy’s characters have something of this missionless mission about them. In The Moviegoer, his resident alien is John Bickerson Bolling, also called Jack, also called Binx – the nicknames in themselves show that people around John simply project their own ideas of who he is onto the blank white screen of his existence. Binx works by day as a financial investor, tools around New Orleans in a sports car, cavorts with an occasional pretty girl. But the only real enjoyment in his human existence comes when he escapes it … by stepping into a movie theater to get lost in an artificial world for a few cool hours.
John Bolling simply seems to exist, in other words, not to live. A pity, since he’s smack in the middle of a town and time for sweet living – the novel is set in New Orleans in the week of Mardi Gras, and wild Tchoupitoulas roam the streets in bacchanalian costumes, and gigantic floats monster out of torchlit darkness, these covered with men in robes and masks hurling doubloons and candy and necklaces. Did I also mention that New Orleans is our most utterly pagan city … and our most Catholic, at the same time?
Percy’s own unfortunate family, as you might imagine, gave him plenty of material for this sort of character. The backlot of the family history was heaped with Dostoyevsky-sized characters – the distinguished Percy family had once boasted a U.S. Senator and a Civil War hero. Still, the leading men of the Percy household had that bad habit of blowing their heads off with guns every generation. No wonder Percy could dream up a fictional lost young soul like Binx, a moviegoer.
Fortunately, Percy got some more hopeful material elsewhere – a bachelor uncle over in Greenville, Mississippi, raised him and his two brothers after his mother’s death. His uncle took him one day to a neighbor’s and introduced him there to a boy about his own age named Shelby. The boys became inseparable friends, and as men they remained that way. Both turned themselves into writers – the Shelby was Shelby Foote, the great Civil War historian and fiction writer, and the most memorable of Ken Burns’s historical experts in the blockbuster PBS series on The Civil War.
Anyway, with Shelby Foote as a friend, and with the childhood in Mississippi and an education that led to a medical degree, the young Walker Percy discovered in life at least a hint that he needn’t follow the suicidal script of his father and grandfather. And, with The Moviegoer, Percy settled in to wrestle with the demons of the family and of the universe right there on the written page.
The epigram of The Moviegoer is a quote from Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher most closely associated with the concept of existentialism. The epigram reads: The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair. But Binx Bolling is aware, dimly, that he’s not getting much out of the life he lives. He embarks on a search that “anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
This is Walker Percy’s great subject, truly. The Everydayness of life. Rolling that same rock forever up that same hill. What the French would call, perhaps, ennui, only framed in black, like the darkness around a movie theater. Binx Bolling wanders through the Everydayness in quiet, ticking desperation. So do other Percy characters in The Moviegoer, including a cousin named Kate who will, by the novel’s end, offer grace … and to whom Binx will be a saving grace too.
Percy is Southern, with the lifeblood of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi flowing through his works. But his literary precedents aren’t Southern at all – they’re from the European tradition, where writers like Camus and Mann and so many others blended fiction with philosophy, words with weighty thoughts and ponderings. Actually, The Moviegoer brings to mind a European film maker, as much as any other writer – the novel feels as if the existential director Ingmar Bergman sat down at his desk and opened an artery, dipped in his quill, then scribbled out 250-odd pages on the search for the meaning of life. Life in New Orleans, anyway.
Walker Percy is no longer in vogue, as you surely have noticed. When was the last time you heard his name mentioned in a listing of Southern writers? (The only other rockstar writer from the 1970s who has fared as poorly is the Englishman, John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus, among other titles. In the day, Fowles was the second coming of Christ; today, he’s the leftover second serving of Thomas Hardy.)
It’s a pity. As heavy as his musings can be, it must be said that Walker Percy can most surely write. Here’s a section from The Moviegoer. If you’ve ever even once been to the backwaters of the South on a misty morning, you’ll recognize how perfectly Walker catches the scene.
A deformed live oak emerges from the whiteness, stands up in the air, like a tree in a Chinese print. Minutes pass. An egret lets down on his light stiff wings and cocks one eye at the water. Behind me the screen door opens softly and my mother comes out on the dock with a casting rod. She props the rod against the rail, puts down a wax-paper bundle, scratches both arms under the sleeves and looks about her, yawning. “Hinh-honh,” she says in a yawn-sigh as wan and white as the morning. Her blouse is one of Roy’s army shirts and not much too big for her large breasts. She wears blue Keds and ladies’ denims with a flyless front pulled high over her bulky hips. With her baseball cap pressed down over her wiry hair she looks like the woman you see fishing from highway bridges.
Booky Man reader, The Moviegoer is a book written for you – for a Reader, with a capital R. Its purpose is not entertainment, really, so much as inner-attainment: Percy gives us what Updike and Bellow and other great writers strive to give – a movie trailer of how Everyman, rolling that rock up that hill of the Everydayness, might be saved by some kind of grace.
It’s amusing, in light of the European-ness of his books, to think of a celebrated incident in Percy’s past. In his young manhood, the writer and Shelby Foote got in a car and drove to Oxford, Mississippi, where the Nobel Prize-winning William Faulkner lived. The two young men had resolved to meet the great and famous writer, and indeed they did – sort of.
Percy lost his nerve when the car rolled up outside Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home. He wouldn’t get out of the car. Shelby Foote, a braver man – or maybe one more southern, like Faulkner, under it all, and less European in his reserve – Shelby Foote did get out of the car. Faulkner welcomed him in a friendly way, and the great writer and the young man who would soon enough come to write as monumentally of history as Faulkner did of made-up Mississippi, these two sat on rocking chairs on the Faulkner porch and engaged in a long, lively conversation about books, writers and ideas.
Walker Percy watched from the car.
A lot, you’d imagine, like a man watching a movie.