1961: Walker Percy publishes ‘The Moviegoer’
Binx Bolling’s search for meaning in his thoroughly ordinary life as he nears his 30th birthday is recounted in “The Moviegoer,” Covington author Walker Percy’s debut novel, published in 1961. This tale of a movie-obsessed Gentilly resident may seem light-hearted, but it draws on Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and the works of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. “The Moviegoer” won the National Book Award in 1962, and Percy was immediately proclaimed an author to watch. He followed it with five novels and two books of essays.
Percy died in 1990 at the age of 73 and was buried on the grounds of St. Joseph Abbey near Covington. His books are still the object of study, in classrooms and in learned journals, and he has been compared to such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. In August 2017, the Covington City Council voted to install a 9-foot sculpture of Percy, created by local artist Bill Billings, at the city’s Bogue Falaya Park. Another statue of Walker, also sculpted by Billings and unveiled in 2016, greets visitors to the Madisonville public library.
- Although Percy is celebrated as a writer, he started out to become a doctor, graduating from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. But a bout of tuberculosis, followed by a long convalescence, put an end to his medical career.
- Somewhat ironically, “The Moviegoer” has never been adapted into a movie, although director Terrence Malick reportedly toyed with the idea in the 1980s.
- Though he didn’t write it, Percy’s legacy includes John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” which he received in manuscript form from Thelma Toole, the author’s mother. She was doing the legwork because her son had killed himself in 1969. Percy read the idiosyncratic book about some memorable New Orleans denizens, liked it and used his influence to get it published. “Dunces” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.
- After Percy’s parents died while he was in his teens, he and his two brothers were adopted by a cousin, William Alexander Percy. Will Percy’s house in Greenville, Miss., was a magnet for visiting writers, including Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes and Faulkner, who frequently showed up to play tennis.
- When Percy won the National Book Award, he beat out a field that included Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” and Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road.”
- Because “Catch-22” was believed to be the favorite to win the award, tongues started wagging among the literati about the possibility of unscrupulous goings-on among the judges. But in a 2012 article for Slate, Benjamin Hedin had a simple explanation: A.J. Liebling, a renowned writer whose books include “The Earl of Louisiana,” about Earl K. Long, read “The Moviegoer,” liked it and recommended it to his wife, the novelist Jean Stafford, who sat on the National Book Awards’ fiction jury. The other judges liked it, too, and “The Moviegoer” won on the first ballot.
- “Love in the Ruins,” which Percy wrote in 1971, opens with a sniper attack from a Howard Johnson motel in a city like New Orleans. In January 1973, Mark Essex opened fire from a perch atop a Howard Johnson’s hotel across from New Orleans’ Civic Center. Percy, who said he was relieved that the book wasn’t found among Essex’s possessions, disclaimed any prophetic powers, adding, “If I did, I’d have taken automobile mechanics in high school.”
In a region known for its literary figures, Percy’s rich legacy stands out, offering portraits of people trying to find their way in a world gone haywire. His stories are complex and deeply philosophical; because of Percy’s deep Catholic faith, they also serve as moral guides. In “Understanding Walker Percy,” Linda Whitney Hobson wrote that Percy “probes … the disease of the American soul” and that his heroes always make a leap of faith. That act is necessary, she wrote, if these individuals want to find a way out of despair.