January 4, 2009

Gentilly Parish

In 1961 a writer few people had heard of won the National Book Award, beating out Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road. It was Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, a handsome volume from Alfred A. Knopf that would soon become a touchstone book for other writers, misfits, and southerners who were, in the old south, internal emigrés or displaced to the north. One of the few people to have heard of Walker Percy in New York other than his editor at Knopf, Walter Kauffman, was Donald Barthelme, then an equally unknown writer who was the managing editor of a short-lived arts magazine called Location. Already omnivorous, Barthelme had read Percy's philosophical essays (he later said) in the Philosophical Review. Percy had decided, several years before, that he wanted a different kind of audience, so he made up a novel about the kind of dislocated person he was then worried about, a man for whom to all appearances everything was as it should be in midcentury America, but who suffered--since he lived in Gentilly Parish in New Orleans, from malaise. Binx Bolling (the name was borrowed from one of Percy's cousins, Jack Bolling) is a stockbroker who runs a one-man office and has serial affairs with his secretaries. He's the moviegoer of the title, although he doesn't watch movies the way most others do, even movie buffs. He sees them as more real than life itself. He watches them in a rundown theater called The Tivoli near his home or in a student hangout known as The Armpit. Unlike the other people around him who say they think something is wrong with the world, he thinks something is really wrong, so when he runs into an old college fraternity brother their conversation goes off the hinges almost from the start:

"Why in the hell don't you give me a call sometime?"
"What would we talk about?" I say in our sour-senseless style of ten years ago.
Walter gives my shoulder a hard squeeze. "I'd forgotten what a rare turd you are. No, you're right. What would we talk about," Walter says elegiacally, "Oh, Lord, what's wrong with the goddam world, Binx?"
"I'm not sure. But something occurred to me this morning. I was sitting on the bus--"
"What do you do with yourself out there in Gentilly?" People often ask me what is wrong with the world and what I do in Gentilly. I always try to give an answer. The former is an interesting question. I have noticed, however, that no one really wants to listen to an answer."

The novel was taken for a book about the New South, because it didn't read like Faulkner, but it owes more to the old South, for Binx Bolling is really another in the line of Quentin Compson, only he went to Columbia rather than Harvard, though it was medical school after an ordinary undergraduate career at a local college, perhaps Tulane. But Binx was in the Korean War. In movie terms he resembles one of those disaffected returned veterans in noirish movies of the fifties. The world is out of joint, and his intuition is that it isn't him. His father was a suicide, a story Percy would finally give in rounded out form in The Second Coming, his last real novel. Binx was not standard southern literature fare because he is not an aristocrat and he is not country: he is a member of the postwar middle class, a stockbroker. He says, "It is a source of satisfaction to me to make money." He's a new type for the south. "My first idea was the building itself. It looks like a miniature bank with its Corinthian pilasters, portico, and iron scrolls over the windows....It announces to the world are no doubt excellent but here is good old-fashioned stability, but stability with imagination. A little bit of old New England with a Creole flavor. The Parthenon façade cost twelve thousand dollars but commissions have doubled. The young man you see inside is clearly the soul of integrity; he asks nothing more than to plan your future. This is true. This is all I ask."

But in addition to his ordinary mercenary ambitions he is also something of a rhapsodist, unreeling strong lyrical descriptions, and something else that was also new at the time: his first-person narrative unfolds a little like free-association on a psychoanalyst's couch. The book opens with "This morning I got a note..." The second paragraph with "I remember when..." and the third still another layer back or down with "This reminds me of a movie I saw last month." The character in the movie is an amnesiac, and in his own way so is Binx Bolling. 

His way of life is horizontal, all business and seduction. His dislocation, however, is spiritual and vertical. He is a protestant--the Aunt who raised him after his father's suicide is a Swedenborgian. His mother, however, is Catholic. So Binx is a kind of American Dostoevsky character, a little middle class faceless underground man who is searching for the meaning of life or it might be better to say for the key to its apparent meaningless, a thing that he alone among his fellows notices. The men, that is. The other main character is his first cousin, Kate Cutrer, whose father owns the stockbroking business. Kate is what we now call bipolar, subject to fits of mania and fugue states where she is full of exalted certainty, after which she crashes into suicidal despair. This seeker story gave the novel its appeal to readers, but it was, in its way, a writer's book like Revolutionary Road, read by writers, passed from writer to writer as if it were written in some kind of secret code.

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