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.” Read More