This, it turns out, is the week in which I must periodically kick myself for not having read The Moviegoer sooner. All those years without its example. All those years without Walker Percy's language rotating and certifying in my brain. (Those are his words, of course: rotate, certify.) I'm 29 now, which means who knows how many wasted years, but fortunately Binx Bolling is 29 too (almost 30), so at least my tardiness is also kind of timely.
Poor Binx: Korea veteran, small-time stockbroker, lover of secretaries and films. He's beset by the malaise. That's what he calls his condition, and it's as good a word as any: Francophone and drawling, general and elastic enough to absorb loads of specific meanings from Binx's specific Southern setting. (Merriam-Webster: "A vague sense of mental or moral ill-being." Binx Bolling: "The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo's ghost.") Every walk Binx takes into town, every secretary he falls in love with, every conversation he has with his Aunt Emily at her piano or his cousin Kate on a streetcar or his brother Lonnie on their bayou dock -- all of these are symptoms of the malaise as well as possible definitions. "A green snake swims under the dock," he observes while talking to Lonnie. "I can see the sutures between the plates of its flat skull. It glides through the water without a ripple, stops mysteriously and nods against a piling."
The malaise pursues him even out of New Orleans. Honestly, I could devote an entire Tumblr to heart-breaking, still-fresh, damn-how-does-he-do-it passages from The Moviegoer, but for now I'll settle on this one, from Binx's train trip to Chicago for a conference:
"Chicago is just as I remembered it. I was here twenty five years ago. My father brought me and Scott up to see the Century of Progress and once later to the World Series. Not a single thing do I remember from the first trip but this: the sense of the place, the savor of the genie-soul of the place which every place has or it is not a place. I could have been wrong: it could have been nothing of the sort, not the memory of a place but the memory of being a child. But one step out into the brilliant March day and there it is as big as life, the genie-soul of the place which, wherever you go, you must meet and master first thing or be met and mastered. Until now, one genie-soul and only one ever proved too strong for me: San Francisco--up and down hills I pursued him, missed him and was pursued, by a presence, a powdering of fall gold in the air, a trembling brightness that pierced to the heart, and the sadness of coming at last to the sea, the coming to the end of America. Nobody but a Southerner knows the wrenching rinsing sadness of the cities of the North. Knowing all about genie-souls and living in haunted places like Shiloh and the Wilderness and Vicksburg and Atlanta where the ghosts of heroes walk abroad by day and are more real than people, he knows a ghost when he sees one, and no sooner does he step off the train in New York or Chicago or San Francisco than he feels the genie-soul perched on his shoulder."
Genie-soul: a cartoon concept Percy rotates, and rotates again, until it is entirely real, entirely his, and entirely certified.
author of The Violet Hour, reader, prodigious eater of ice cream