I’m worried about America. I’m worried about its bankrupt cities, its abandoned factories, and its intractable wars. I’m worried that the country faces “a crisis of confidence,” as Jimmy Carter declared in his famous “Malaise” speech, back in 1979. The recent shutdown of the federal government is just the latest indication that America has lost its “unity of purpose,” giving rise to “growing doubt about the meaning of [its citizens’] lives.” I love America—how can you not love the country that gave us jazz and barbecue and The Godfather Part II?—so I take no pleasure from these fatalistic musings. Instead, I find myself looking for comfort, and a sense of perspective, in a novel written half a century ago by another soul-searching Southerner. If Jimmy Carter gave America the “Malaise” speech, then Walker Percy wrote the book on it.
Published in 1961, The Moviegoer was Percy’s first and most widely praised novel, the highlight of a remarkable life in American letters that ended in 1990. His protagonist is a stockbroker in late-fifties New Orleans, a young man pursuing an interest in the movies and affairs with his secretaries, quietly dedicating himself to family and finance. But soon Binx Bolling finds himself on a “search” for a more authentic life, something that will measure and mark his existence against the passage of time. “The search,” he explains, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” Over the course of a fateful Mardi Gras weekend, Binx comes face to face with the same specter that haunts the rubble of postcrash America: “the cold and fishy eye of the malaise.”
Binx Bolling is at first glance an unusual poster boy for the current depression, an era in which the quest for self-realization might seem an unaffordable luxury. But the search for meaning has never ebbed and flowed according to the fluctuations of the stock market. Millions of Americans led interior, profoundly solitary lives during the bubble years that started the twenty-first century, and they now confront even more acute feelings of dislocation. Binx is a soulful and profane standard-bearer for that disillusionment, “smelling merde from every quarter” of American life. He fails in his half-hearted love affairs. He confounds his family with his disregard for rectitude and tradition. Alienated from both the Old South and the New America, Binx staggers towards the same sobering realization that dogged Jimmy Carter in the summer of 1979. ”We’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning,” Carter preached in his speech. “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Binx seeks to fill this void by immersing himself in the the quintessential art form of his era. “In the darkness at the movies,” Pauline Kael once wrote, “where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses.” Binx’s pilgrimages to suburban movie palaces are both an escape from everydayness and a heightened experience of the world around him, an opportunity to “discover … place and time, taste … it like okra.” During a screening of Panic in the Streets in the very New Orleans neighborhood where the movie was filmed, he finds he can “live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.” This is movie-going as an existential affirmation, a bold gambit to stave off the encroaching anonymity of twentieth-century life.
Binx’s thirst for escapism and identity lends a certain poignancy to our culture’s recent obsession with the post-war boom times depicted in The Moviegoer. We’ve been enthralled by the sleek aesthetic spectacle of AMC’s Mad Men, nostalgic for the Technicolor glamour of sixties fashion, finance and femininity. Like Don Draper, Mad Men’s resident symbol of midcentury machismo, Binx Bolling is both a paragon of postwar respectability—a successful businessman who feels “the same cheerful and expanding benevolence” every time “American Motors jumps two dollars”—and a man deeply ambivalent about life in a gray flannel suit. (Draper has also been known to take refuge in an afternoon matinee.) But where Mad Men peddles a fundamentally comforting vision of the early sixties, slyly nodding at the decades of social progress that separate us from its characters, Binx is unrelenting in his skepticism toward his “century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied [and] everyone becomes an anyone.” This contrast isn’t simply a matter of historical perspective; it’s a reflection of Percy’s profound dismay at the emotional and spiritual strictures of life in a global supply chain. As Percy remarked on accepting the National Book Award in 1962, The Moviegoer is a lament for “the loss of individuality and the loss of identity at the very time when words like the ‘dignity of the individual’ and ‘self-realization’ are being heard more frequently than ever.”
That Percy sounds this plaintive cry without hitting the note of shrill sanctimony that doomed Jimmy Carter is a tribute to his gifts as a stylist and a storyteller. Binx’s search unfolds against a rich backdrop of New Orleans dusk and bayou dawn, a riot of color and texture. Delightful comic set pieces punctuate the narrative, forming an exuberant counterpoint to Percy’s sobering meditations on mortality. When an encounter with a family friend sets Binx’s malaise radar on red alert, his vision of the woman’s desolate existence—“why does she talk as if she were dead? Another forty years to go and dead dead dead”—is leavened by a madcap account of the “rumble in [his] descending bowel, heralding a tremendous defecation.” She “goes on talking and there is nothing to do but shift around as best one can, take care not to fart.” Nothing like a gust of flatulence to blow one back from the abyss.
Percy would surely greet reports forecasting the end of the current depression with a similar eruption of mirth and melancholy. “Whenever there is a chance of gain there is also a chance of loss,” Binx declares in the frenzied aftermath of a car crash. “Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.” There’s something strangely comforting about Binx’s equanimity, his stoicism in the face of forces beyond his control. Like Binx and his Mad Men contemporaries, unaware of the assassinations and race riots and terrifying hairstyles lurking just around the corner, we have no idea what will emerge out of the seismic changes convulsing our national governments and our global economy. Consider The Moviegoer a signpost in these strange times, a beacon lit by the eternal flames of Percy’s imagination: the alienation and despair that persist in times of plenty and paucity alike; the power of language and humor to still these tremors and give them meaning. The malaise will endure, he warns us. The search will continue.
Will Di Novi is a writer based in Toronto. He has written for the Atlantic, Salon, The New Republic, The Nation, and the Rumpus.