Walker Percy prefaced The Moviegoer with a line from Søren Kierkegaard: “The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” And from that starting point Percy slowly crafts a portrait of a New Orleans broker named Jack Bolling. Jack has a bad shoulder from a shrapnel wound he received in the Korean War. He rents a basement in the quiet Gentilly district. He is “a model tenant and a model citizen and take pleasure in doing all that is expected of me.” He is not particularly brilliant or exceptional. His only talent, he tells us, is for making money. He is in love with Sharon Kincaid, his third secretary. He was in love with Linda, the girl before, and Marcia, the girl before her. He has owned a number of cars but prefers to ride the bus or the trolley. He only likes to drive when he is taking Marcia, or Linda, or Sharon for a drive down the coast, where they can stop in a cove and twine themselves in each other’s arms “and hardly believe the world could contain such happiness.” But he is not happy with his car, though it is a good one, or his secretaries, though they are beautiful. He is content in his living, but he feels the most contented when he is watching a movie.
Jack is a little like Friedrich Nietzsche’s Madman, if less outspoken. He does not run onto Bourbon Street to ask the tourists where God is hiding. He does not go into the churches and say God is gone; but read his description of his Uncle Jules: “He is an exemplary Catholic, but it is hard to know why he takes the trouble. For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him.” Jules is Jack’s employer, and his “life ambition is to revive the fortunes of the Tulane football team….When he describes a goal line standing against L.S.U. in 1932, it is like King Arthur standing fast in the bloodred sunset against Sir Mordred and the traitors.” This is the predicament of Jack’s society. God is not dead; Jack is haunted by the terrible possibility that God is in fact present everywhere, even in Gentilly. But he is in a social set made up of people, including even the Catholic Uncle Jules, who are oblivious to the possibility of God. This was once a religious society, one that loved an idea of God, however inadequate that idea was. They believed in God, if badly. But that love and belief were too tied up in the trappings of a Victorian ethos that was murdered at the Somme, in the Argonne, or over the English channel. Jack says of his father: “He was commissioned in the RCAF in 1940 and got himself killed before his country entered the war. And in Crete. And in the wine dark sea. And by the same Boche. And with a copy of The Shropshire Lad in his pocket.” That was the South: religious, defeated, Anglophile, now reduced to Mass on Sundays and college football and brokerage for people wanting to buy beachfront property. The rich Arthurian allusions Percy draws, lend a sort of grandeur to the decline. The age of chivalry is gone, quarterbacks and real estate brokers has succeeded, the glory of the South is gone forever.
Jack is not trying to resurrect some Old Southern ethos. He is on the receiving end of the decline. But he is an observer. He watches movies. He watches movies because they sharpen his sense of wonder. Movie stars carry with them a strange sense of reality. A movie is not an avenue for escapism; it is a sub-created world which gives Jack a more intense appreciation of the real. The suspension of disbelief allows Jack to believe in something more substantial than beachfront houses and the Tulane football. He has seen a good bit of the world. But he says, “What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach.” Jack is not an escapist. His ability to believe a film, to enter into a make-believe story, makes him the keenest realist in his set. Jack is able to see through facades, to note the quiddity of the world around him. He sees artifice for what it is, but is willing to play along. But he also notes the malaise. The fact that people make money, eat, make love, and go to church as if things had no significance beyond wealth, satiety, pleasure, and society. The malaise is a sort of haunting. It comes on when life seems to be reaching a high point; it is a realization that there is no real satisfaction in this life. Jack lives from high point to high point, trying to capture the wonder and avoid the malaise.
Jack is not a social reformer, but he is a prophet. His eyes are always open to what he calls “the wonder”: the sun catching dust motes in a laboratory, the Spanish moss outside his old fraternity house, the morning mist on the bayou around his family home. As he watches the world it grows on his mind. He sees the wonder and the malaise and begins a search. He believes there is a reason why wonder distracts him from distraction, and why he is dogged by the malaise.
Walker Percy was a Catholic and set much of The Moviegoer during the liturgical season of Epiphany. As the weeks between Christmas and Lent unfold, Jack follows the search where it takes him. It ends on Ash Wednesday, as Jack watches a black man come out of church, his forehead “an ambiguous sienna color and pied: it is impossible to be sure that he has received ashes.” For once Jack can not see quite through a thing, and that is his penance.
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