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Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Five Books Every American Should Read: The Moviegoer, Number Three
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By Jessica Hooten, July 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Harold Bloom calls The Moviegoer “a permanent American book,” placing the novel in the tradition of Mark Twain. He describes the protagonist Binx Bolling as “a kind of grown-up, ruefully respectable New Orleans version of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn”—leave it to Harold Bloom to get to an idea before me. When I was deciding on the second book that every American should read, I wavered between those two. While Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is canonical, Percy’s first novel is just as quintessentially American, expressing who we have been, who we are, and who we are becoming. It received the National Book Award in 1962, and in 1998 the Modern Library ranked the novel number 60 out of 100 best 20th century English-language novels.

The twentieth-century Huck Finn, Binx, is also on a quest, what he describes as “the search.” Binx defines the search thus: “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. …To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair” (13). With all their freedom, Americans now struggle with what to do with that freedom. Ironically, a nation founded on the pursuit of happiness is populated by people largely in despair.

Binx’s “cousin” Kate (the stepdaughter of his Aunt) suffers from such despair, or “malaise,” as Percy terms it. After an attempt to commit suicide, she realizes that life is a choice. She enjoys what Percy calls in Lost in the Cosmos the life of an “ex-suicide:” “The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive.” Once you realize that you have a choice to live, life becomes something to value. Both Percy’s father and grandfather committed suicide, so Percy understood that choice well.

The novel ends with an affirmation of life that most people, including Bloom, either ignore or debunk. Binx and Kate end up together and their marriage signifies a change in Binx; the existentialist wanderer has made a commitment to love and to community. Moreover, Percy intended the epilogue to be a tribute to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Though it concludes with the death of Binx’s young brother, Percy emphasizes the resurrection.

Walker Percy was a Catholic convert. He moved from agnosticism to faith and simultaneously made a move from science to fiction. A recent documentary by Win Riley (http://www.walkerpercymovie.com) shows this transition. In an interview in First Things, Riley says, “In the making of the film, I felt as if I had an obligation to fully explain Percy’s faith. Finally, I came to realize that it couldn’t ever be fully explained.” Percy would have wanted it that way. For Percy, faith was a gift; he would spend his life searching to understand it.

In Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls, Peter Lawler attempts to ascertain why the average American, who currently inhabits a national utopia “may be less happy, may experience themselves as more lonely and displaced, than ever” (x). He takes his title from Percy, who asserts that we are all aliens in this world, meant for another world. Yet, fifty years after Percy diagnosed the feeling of displacement, Americans are still searching.

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3 Comments
Lee Trepanier on Jul 10, 2011 at 9:28 pm

The Moviegoer is a great novel, but I would have to rank All the King's Men higher, as it also deal with the great American theme of the "search" and set in the South (I also would put Confederacy of Dunces above the Moviegoer just out of pure laughs).

Jason Joseph on Jul 10, 2011 at 11:47 pm

Like The Moviegoer, Percy’s Love in the Ruins has the hero undergo a similar character development. Both novels also have secondary characters which are human signposts (Binx’s brother, More’s daughter) for the main characters. These human signposts or saints are absent in the later novels. Is Percy getting darker or is this a development of his ‘Indirect Communication’? He writes: “My theory (like Flannery's) is that the times are such that the language of religion is so exhausted, de trop, that the tactic of the apologist must be indirect, perhaps even devious. More devious even than S[oren] K[ierkegaard]"

Percy and O’Connnor’s method has certainly made them amenable to Sophisticated or Secular Americans today, but it also makes them vulnerable to misinterpretation as well. Flannery O’Connor had to write a Note to the 2nd edition of Wise Blood in order to clarify its meaning. Their fictional worlds are strange lands so without a point in the right direction, the reader is likely to get lost.

Jessica Hooten on Jul 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm

The Moviegoer is not my favorite of the Percy oeuvre (that would be The Last Gentleman), but I am not picking my favorite books. If I were, I would also include Confederacy of Dunces because it is one of the funniest books I've read to date! However, I think The Moviegoer occupies a unique place in American literature. While it's not as epic as Warren's All the King's Men, it accomplishes more by uniting European existentialism, Southern Stoicism, Catholicism, and Twain's satiricism (I was going for several isms here) in a story that all at once comments on American culture, history, and individual identity. It's dialogic and polyphonic in the style of Dostoevsky without being overly dark or too spiritually intense. Of all of Percy's novel, it's the most relatable and the least likely to get readers lost.

about the author

Jessica Hooten
Jessica Hooten

I am an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. In 2009 I received my doctorate in Religion and Literature from Baylor University. My dissertation explored the theological connections between Dostoevsky and Flannery O'Connor and was directed by Ralph Wood. Currently, I'm researching Dostoevsky's connections to other Southern writers, including Walker Percy and Carson McCullers, to produce a book-length manuscript. I teach courses that support my research, including Southern literature, Totalitarinism and literature, and American literature survey courses.