Walker Percy was diagnosed with tuberculosis at age 26. He had just graduated from medical school in 1941, and ended up spending years in a TB sanatorium in upstate New York. He wiled away the days reading Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Soren Kierkegaard.
That explains a lot.
In reading his novel The Moviegoer (1961) those existential themes of alienation, search for meaning, and loss of faith are so prevalent in the philosophical musings of narrator Binx Bolling.
Binx is a 30-year-old stockbroker living in New Orleans in the 1950s. He visits his aunt of the Grand Southern Tradition on Sundays and Wednesdays.
At one point she tells him:
More than anything I wanted to pass on to you the one heritage of the men of our family, a certain quality of spirit, a gaiety, a sense of duty, a nobility worn lightly, a sweetness, a gentleness with women - the only good things the South ever had and the only things that really matter in this life.
High standards for Mr. Bolling to meet.
He would rather fall in love with whatever secretary happens to be working for him. He likes to carry on imagined conversations with manly movie stars - William Holden, Gary Merrill, Gregory Peck - and spends his time at the movies to escape the everydayness - the enemy, he calls it - of his life. He has a close relationship with his step-cousin Kate who suffers from some sort of depression or mental illness.
You can see the story is not all Southern sweet tea and light.
That said, I am glad I read the book for the simple reason that I had not read any of Mr. Percy's work and he has a fine reputation. But, living in the head of a 30-year-old Lost Boy in Angst is not something I would want to do very often. I kept thinking I was meeting up with an older, Southern Holden Caufield but without all the bad words.
I suggested this book to a friend of mine who had lived in New Orleans at one time. He loved reading about the streets and the neighborhoods of the city but agreed with me that our time of wandering aimlessly had long since passed. We survived the despair and malaise of that stage in life and have moved on.
All in all, I would recommend The Moviegoer as Mr. Percy does have a way of capturing small details in his characters' mannerisms and evoking the atmosphere of that part of the country.
Evening is the best time in Gentilly. There are not so many trees and the buildings are low and the world is all sky. The sky is a deep bright ocean full of light and life. A mare's tail of cirrus cloud stands in high from the Gulf. High above the Lake a broken vee of ibises points for the marshes; then go suddenly white as they fly into the tilting salient of sunlight. Swifts find a windy middle reach of sky and come twittering down so fast I think at first gnats have crossed my eyelids.