The Moviegoer – Posh Literature Meets Cop Movie

The Moviegoer is the debut novel of Walker Percy, published in 1961. The central character is a 29 year old stock broker, named Binx Bolling, living in New Orleans, somewhat traumatised by his experiences as a solider in the Korean War. He is trying to make sense of his life, but resists the efforts of other people to do this for him, in terms of jobs or relationships. His contradictory struggle unfolds through days at the office, flirty trips with secretaries to the Gulf coast, visits to the cinema, and a relationship with an extremely troubled cousin.

So what to make of it? You could take the intellectual approach and note the author’s interest in existentialist philosophy, which basically means that his central character faces experience unencumbered by creed or doctrine, accepting confusion and disorientation as he tries to work things out. Alternatively you could think of Binx in terms of a character from the movies he frequents. Let’s think of a movie about a cop – unconventional, probably battling a drink problem, regretting a messed up marriage, and on his last warning with his exasperated commanding officer, who sees the man’s qualities, but jeez, he’s hard work. 

Binx Bolling is really a kind of philosophical version of the wayward but talented cop. Yes, he has problems, but his unorthodox approach allows him to see things from a different angle, noticing details missed by his more straight-up-and-down colleagues. The cop picks up clues to a difficult case: Binx picks up clues to the spiritual conundrum of how to make sense of his life.

Occasionally I did feel the writing verged on the pretentious and condescending, particularly in sections mentioning films. This was odd as Binx seems to love going to the cinema. We don’t hear much about individual films, and what we do hear is often flippant. For example, getting to the end of the book, Binx summaries The Young Philadelphians, seen on his last cinema visit:

“Paul Newman is an idealistic young fellow who is disillusioned and becomes cynical and calculating. But in the end he recovers his ideals.”

I think we’re supposed to feel that The Moviegoer is much too subtle to be reduced to this sort of trite moralising. However, I actually do think a film – a cop film of course – can give us a sense of how Binx gets on with his search for meaning. You can wonder whether Binx makes sense of his life in the same way that you can wonder whether Catherine Tramell was guilty or innocent at the end of Basic Instinct – hard to tell in both cases. The Moviegoer has airs and graces, but – and I don’t mean this critically – it’s as American as the Hollywood films it references. Binx looks for meaning and doesn’t find it in the easy American categories of religion, good jobs, money and family. He is a lost cop, a good drunk and a bad husband, who bends a few rules, only so that a vague sense of justice, rather than a clear seat of regulations, wins out in the end.

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