Movies in Literature Part 1: Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’

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As you’ve probably guessed from the title this post is to be the first in a series offering up sequences of fiction writing that will be of value to those of us with a love of and an interest in cinema.

The young man with his leg outstretched in the photo is Walker Percy when he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina, queueing to see a movie. You don’t normally find photos of the artist before they were famous as striking or as fitting as this. I’m also always a sucker for old photos of cinemas..

I’ve decided to begin at the beginning with this one, since I find this opening passage in Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer (1960) the most beautiful in the whole book. One time I spent an age searching through this book to quote this sequence to a friend and couldn’t find it.. This afternoon I opened the book on page 1 and there it was – Enjoy!

*****

  This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means. Since I go there every Sunday for dinner and today is Wednesday, it can mean only one thing: she wants to have one of our serious talks. It will be extremely grave, either a piece of bad news about her stepdaughter Kate or else a serious talk about me, about the future and what I ought to do. It is enough to scare the wits out of anyone, yet I confess I do not find the prospect altogether unpleasant.

  I remember when my older brother Scott died of pneumonia. I was eight years old. My aunt had charge of me and she took me for a walk behind the hospital. It was an interesting street. On one side were the power plant and blowers and incinerator of the hospital, all humming and blowing out a hot meaty smell. On the other side was a row of Negro houses. Children and old folks and dogs sat on the porches watching us. I noticed with pleasure that Aunt Emily seemed to have all the time in the world and was willing to talk about anything I wanted to talk about. Something extraordinary had happened all right. We walked in step. “Jack,” she said, squeezing me tight and smiling at the Negro shacks, “you and I have always been good buddies, haven’t we?” “Yes ma’am” My heart gave a big pump and the back of my neck prickled like a dog’s. “I’ve got bad news for you, son.” She squeezed me tighter than ever. “Scotty is dead. Now it’s all up to you. It’s going to be difficult for you but I know you’re going to act like a soldier.” This was true. I could easily act like a soldier. Was that all I had to do?

  It reminds me of a movie I saw last month out by Lake Pontchartrain. Linda and I went out to a theatre in a new suburb. It was evident somebody had miscalculated, for the suburb had quit growing and here was the theatre, a pink stucco cube, sitting out in a field all by itself. A strong wind whipped the waves against the sea wall; even inside you could hear the racket. The movie was about a man who lost his memory in an accident and as a result lost everything: his family, his friends, his money. He found himself a stranger in a strange city. Here he had to make a fresh start, find a new place to live, a new job, a new girl. It was supposed to be a tragedy, his losing all this, and he seemed to suffer a great deal. On the other hand, things were not so bad after all. In no time he found a very picturesque place to live, a houseboat on the river, and a very handsome girl, the local librarian.

  After the movie Linda and I stood under the marquee and talked to the manager, or rather listened to him tell his troubles: the theatre was almost empty, which was pleasant for me but not for him. It was a fine night and I felt good. Overhead was the blackest sky I ever saw; a black wind pushed the lake towards us. The waves jumped over the seawall and spattered the street. The manager had to yell to be heard while from the sidewalk speaker directly over his head came the twittering conversation of the amnesiac and the librarian. It was the part where they are going through the newspaper files in search of some clue to his identity (he has a vague recollection of an accident). Linda stood by unhappily. She was unhappy for the same reason I was happy-because here we were in a neighbourhood theatre out in the sticks and without a car (I have a car but I prefer to ride buses and streetcars). Her idea of happiness is to drive downtown and have supper at the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel. This I am obliged to do from time to time. It is worth it, however. On these occasions Linda becomes as exalted as I am now. Her eyes glow, her lips become moist, and when we dance she brushes her fine long legs against mine. She actually loves me at these times-and not as a reward for being taken to the Blue Room. She loves me because she feels exalted in this romantic place and not in a movie out in the sticks.

  But all this is history. Linda and I have parted company. I have a new secretary, a girl named Sharon Kincaid.

*****

My readings of this sequence from The Moviegoer can be found here and here.

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