by Walker Percy
“What do you seek--God? you ask with a smile.
I hesitate to answer, since all other Americans have settled the matter for themselves and to give such an answer would amount to setting myself a goal which everyone else has reached -- Truthfully, it is the fear of exposing my own ignorance which constrains me from mentioning the object of my search. For, to begin with, I cannot even answer this, the simplest and most basic of all questions: Am I, in my search, a hundred miles ahead of my fellow Americans or a hundred miles behind them? That is to say: Have 98% of Americans already found what I seek or are they so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has occurred to them?
On my honor, I do not know the answer.” - Walker Percy
American novelist Walker Percy is known best for his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961), which tells the tale of a young Southern man named Binx Bolling who is so alienated from the world that he prefers movies and books to people.
In his portrait of the boyish New Orleans stockbroker wavering between ennui and the longing for redemption, Percy managed to create an American existentialist saga. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Binx Bolling is adrift. He occupies himself dallying with his secretaries and going to movies, which provide him with the "treasurable moments" absent from this real life. Every night at dusk, when the Gulf breeze stirs the warm, heavy air over New Orleans, a 29-year-old wanderer named Binx Bolling emerges from his apartment, carrying in his hand the movie page of his newspaper, his telephone book and a map of the city. With these documents, Binx proceeds to chart his course to that particular neighborhood cinema in which he will spend his evening. But one fateful Mardi gras, Binx embarks on a quest — a search for authenticity that outrages his family, endangers his fragile cousin, Kate, and sends him reeling through the gaudy chaos of the French Quarter. Eventually through this "search" Binx rediscovers himself by having to face the far more desperate problems of Kate who as she sinks deeper within herself, finds only Binx can talk to her. And in the end, Binx decides to change by making decisions, taking risks, and opening himself to suffering--in other words, by accepting reality.
The spiritual and philosophical quest of Binx Bolling had its roots in Percy's time spent recovering from tuberculosis. Walker Percy had been working as a medical intern in Manhattan, performing autopsies on corpses, when he contracted the disease and had to spend two years in convalescence. That gave him plenty of time to read Russian novels and French philosophy, all of which he wrote into The Moviegoer. In the novel, when asked what the purpose of his journey is, Binx Bolling responds: "There is only one thing I can do. Listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along."
The novel didn't sell very well when it first came out in 1961, but it won the National Book Award and established Walker Percy as one of the leading novelists of the South. After his bout with tuberculosis, Percy became a Roman Catholic. When someone asked if his beliefs influenced his fiction, he said, "If a writer writes from a sense of outrage - and most serious writers do - isn't he by definition a moral writer?"
It is wry and wrenching, rich in irony and romance, more than suggestive of a life well-examined. In writing about Binx's search Percy created a genuine American classic.