The Last Book I Loved: The Moviegoer


I just had another read of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, because I admire it and because I sought two specific paragraphs from the novel. I wanted to read them again.

With our everydayness so saturated with news media and opinion (even for those who don’t want it to be prominent in their lives, nor own a television), I thought the time might be right to reread these graphs. I found them fast enough. They come soon after the narrator Binx Bolling, a moviegoing Louisiana stockbroker, attends his office’s weekly lunchtime sales conference.

The scene begins after the meeting, with Binx running into his cousin Nell Lovell on the steps of the public library. Binx tells the reader that he enjoys going to the library on occasion, to peruse liberal and conservative periodicals. But his visits are visceral, not intellectual: Binx derives pleasure from the hate he finds in these journals, from the clever invectives hurled (in print) by magazine writers, conservative and liberal alike, at one another.

“Down I plunk myself with a liberal weekly at one end of the massive tables,” he explains. “Read it cover to cover, nodding to myself whenever the writer scores a point. Damn right, old son, I say, jerking my chair in approval. Pour it on them.” Then, he says, he’ll head on over to the conservative pile and sink into a cool seat with a new journal just in time “to join the counterattack. Oh ho, say I, and hold fast to the chair arm: that one did it: eviscerated!”

Binx confesses he’s neither red-state nor blue-state. He’s simply an admirer of the hate, which provides for him the only sign of life left on earth. “All the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive,” he explains.

I wonder how many people might read this today and empathize with Binx, whom Percy has living in a malaise and makes aware yet unaware, enabling the author to make his points. Some of Percy’s later work is criticized for its preachy tone, but in The Moviegoer, and in these deft paragraphs in particular, he’s at top form. Paragraphs that remain relevant decades later are a legacy to envy.

I’m reminded of them whenever a news personality gets the attention of other news personalities for saying something outrageous or controversial or hateful and the news cycle (which we all know too well for people not in the news business) goes round and round until someone is eviscerated or the “controversy” dies down, which is less likely, and not as desirable, because we want blood when flare-ups occur, on mike and for the available cameras; we yearn to see berserk displays unfold live on t.v., or else we’ll read or watch on the web or follow on innumerable media platforms, everywhere. Print might be dying, but the hate is alive.

To revisit Percy’s passage for me was an attempt to understand why people are interested at all in that still-most-visible medium for deranged political discourse: television news and opinion. Why this stuff is on t.v. is easy to figure out: it sells. But why watch? Boredom. Entertainment. Ideology. Yes to all, perhaps. But it’s also for the reason Binx goes to his library alone to read periodicals: something’s missing. And what’s left after exiting the library? Dread. Despair. And hate cloaked as meaning, it seems. Which Percy understood. Which news executives understand. Which Binx comes to recognize, in Walker Percy’s great novel of 1961, page 100. And soon after our stockbroker begins his search.

Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →