By Walker Percy
“What’s the Matter?”
“Ooooh,” Kate groans, Kate herself now. “I’m so afraid.”
“What am I going to do?”
“You mean right now?”
“We’ll go to my car. Then we’ll drive down to the French Market and get some coffee. Then we’ll go home.”
“Is everything going to be all right?”
“Tell me. Say it.”
“Everything is going to be all right.”
If you’re reading this in the future — say, you’ve wandered here via some poof of Google magic — you should know that if I were to turn on my television right now (now being the afternoon of September 2, 2005), I’d flip past image after image after image of destruction, violence, and misery. I’m writing five days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, destroying most of Biloxi, Mississippi and tearing up whole sections of states that were still trying to recover from Ivan the year before. I’m writing four days after the levees gave way in New Orleans, filling the city to its rooftops with putrid water and trapping the thousands of people who were still there, whether because they chose to ride out the storm or, as was more often the case, because they couldn’t afford to leave. I’m writing three days after the looting and violence began and two days after the buses arrived to begin shipping “refugees” to Houston.
I’m also writing four-and-a-half years after President Bush took office and began systematically dismantling FEMA. I’m writing almost exactly four years since September 11th, which we all assumed had motivated federal and state officials to plan seriously for worst-case scenarios on American soil, or at least to have stockpiled rations, water, and the means to distribute them. I’m writing slightly less than three years since FEMA called the New Orleans hurricane scenario “the deadliest of all” (or so reported The Houston Chronicle) and two years after the White House cut funding to an Army Corps of Engineer project intended to strengthen the levees. (Those cuts coincided with President Bush’s decision to deploy the bulk of our national guard in Iraq, we should remember.) I’m writing nine months since small-government conservatives throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama helped re-elect Mr. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress, and three days after Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert announced that he saw no reason to rebuild New Orleans.
I’m writing during the first week in my lifetime when all of America is suddenly being confronted by the poverty and de facto segregation that determines the lives of so many people in the South.
I’m filled with anxiety and sorrow and anger. (And guilt. I’m anxious? I’m angry? In my air-conditioned home with running water and a stocked ‘fridge?) I’m doing the only things I know to do — keeping in contact with our friends and family in harm’s way, offering them a place to stay if they need it and my prayers, regardless. I’ve made my donation and had my stiff drink, and now I don’t know what to do with myself, so today I sat down and read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I have a friend in Baton Rouge who knows quite a lot about Percy. When I asked him what I needed to know about The Moviegoer, he wrote back, “I guess one thing to keep in mind is that none of the places where it’s set are there anymore.” So you’ll understand, I hope, if everything I’m about to write is bloated with sentiment.
Binx Bolling is about to turn thirty. He’s living in a suburb of New Orleans called Gentilly, where the “old-style California bungalows,” the “new-style Daytona cottages,” and the local movie theater offer him some kind of indefinable comfort. The French Quarter, the Garden District, all of the parts of New Orleans that breathe with history and authenticity — they’re all too much for Binx. “Whenever I try to live there,” he tells us, “I find myself first in a rage during which I develop strong opinions on a variety of subjects and write letters to editors, then in a depression during which I lie rigid as a stick for hours staring straight up at the plaster medallion in the ceiling of my room.” He sells bonds or something or other during the day, and seems to have a knack for making money, but most of his energy is directed toward the Lindas and Marcias and Sharons who work for him (then date him, tire of him, and leave).
Binx is surrounded on all sides by family and by tragedy. His father is dead, as are his brother and one half-brother. Another half-brother, only fourteen years old, is sick, confined to a wheelchair by some unspecified disease. His cousin Kate lost her mother as a child and is still coping with the death of her fiancee in a car accident. Binx himself carries the scars of his service in Korea. Percy reveals this to us slowly, though. A novel that begins with the feel of Catcher in the Rye: Ten Years Later becomes something more as we follow Binx on his “search.” The “search” is also hard to define. For Binx, it’s “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 onto something.” It’s a battle against malaise,”the pain of loss.” It’s a search for permanence and wonder. It’s a retreat from despair. It’s simultaneously agnostic and Holy. It’s creative and endowed with impossible power.
It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen in love with a book the way I’ve fallen in love with The Moviegoer, and I’d like to think that would have happened even if New Orleans weren’t under water. Percy’s novel, more than any work I’ve read since first beginning these long pauses, answers directly the call of Levertov’s poem, a poem that, after all, is the search. Near the end of The Moviegoer, Binx sits with Kate and watches a black man fumble with something in the passenger seat of his car. It’s a beautiful image. The man has just stepped out of a church on Ash Wednesday; his forehead is “an ambiguous sienna color and pied.” Still watching, Binx wonders:
It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?
It is impossible to say.