Why Walker Percy Matters to Me

I loved the fiction writer Walker Percy so much, I named my second son after him.  That is, I gave my son—much to my wife’s surprise (she’d wanted a girl so badly she hadn’t thought of boy’s name and after the birth she was too exhausted to argue)—the middle name of “Walker.”   I loved Walker Percy, really, for one reason: The Moviegoer, his first novel.  I don’t know why it struck me as it did, but this novel of early adulthood self-revelation spoke to me in so many ways.  Binx Bolling is the moviegoer, he’s lived a standup life—model citizen, tenant, and stockbroker who lives his life through movies and beautiful women.   But something, he realizes one morning staring at the contents of his pockets—keys, coins, wallet, etc—atop his dresser, is missing in his life.  His search to uncover this mystery is what the story is about.

I suppose I loved the novel because it was funny, and it described something I felt I could identify with.  I was a young man when I read it—and then I re-read it and read it some more.  I even used it to model a novel I was working on.  Percy was an interesting fellow, too.  He was from Alabama, studied to be a physician but contracted TB and couldn’t practice.  He wrote two failed novels before The Moviegoer, and didn’t publish it until he was 45.  He wrote a jacket blurb for my former teacher, Padgett Powell, for Powell’s first novel Edisto, which Percy called better than Catcher in the Rye, and he played a large role in having The Confederacy of the Dunces published.  The author of that novel, John Kennedy Toole, despondent from, among other things, the wall of rejection his novel manuscript received, killed himself.  Toole’s mother, the story goes, threw her dead son’s manuscript over the fence into Walker Percy’s backyard.  Percy read it, championed it, got it published and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  I suppose I loved Walker Percy, too, because there was a lot of hope in the stories that surrounded him.  He was an inspiration to keep writing.

But his writing, his prose in The Moviegoer, in particular, is what hooked me.  Below is a paragraph that I’ve looked at dozens of times.  The language, the observations, the attention to detail—it’s brilliant.  The set-up: Binx, realizing his “exile in Gentilly,” a suburb of New Orleans, “has been the worst kind of self-deception,” comes across a friend caught in the illusion of understanding life:

Yes!  Look at him.  As he talks, he slaps a folded newspaper against his pants leg and his eye watches me and at the same time sweeps the terrain behind me, taking note of the slightest movement.  A green truck turns down Bourbon Street; the eye sizes it up, flags it down, demands credentials, waves it on.  A businessman turns in at the Maison Blanche building; the eye knows him, even knows what he is up to.  And all the while he talks very well.  His lips move muscularly, molding words into pleasing shapes, marshalling arguments, and during the slight pauses are held poised, attractively everted in a Charles Boyer pout—while a little web of saliva gathers in a corner like the clear oil of a good machine.  Now he jingles the coins deep in his pocket.  No mystery here!—he is as cogent as a bird dog quartering a field. He understands everything out there and everything out there is something to be understood.

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