Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Pastor's Remix

My mini-profile of Otis Moss III, the pastor of Chicago’s Trinity UCC—you might remember it as “Obama’s church” from the 2008 campaign—is online here. Moss likes to quote Mos Def and Common, and one of my favorite exchanges came when I asked him about calling the apostle Peter “a thug” in one of his sermons. He said: “He cut off someone’s ear! That’s acting like a thug!”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Ash Wednesday

It has always bothered me a little that The Moviegoer ends on what is not only Ash Wednesday, but Binx’s 30th birthday, too. The day is practically doubled over with the weight of meaning. The timing, I suppose, raises all sorts of questions about Binx and his search and his faith or lack of it, but I’m more interested in a simpler—and yes, dopier—question: What happens to Binx and Kate? They’re supposed to marry, and Binx is supposed to go to medical school and the plan is for them to “walk abroad on a summer night. . . and see a show and eat some oysters down on Magazine.” But, really?

I got a kind of answer when, a few years into my annual Moviegoer routine, I read another very good New Orleans novel, John Gregory Brown’s Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, from 1994. I was almost at the end of that novel when I came to something that just about knocked me out of my chair. A stockbroker-turned-doctor named Jack makes a brief appearance. Some things about Jack seem awfully familiar. Jack drives a tiny red sports car. Jack likes to go to the movies. Jack’s a Korean war veteran who once lived on Gentilly Boulevard. There's not much mystery about it. It’s Binx, of course. But there’s one more thing about Jack, and it’s the detail that made me sure of his identity. Brown says that he “had been married, but his wife had killed herself some years before.” I'm not sure I've ever been quite as stunned by a single sentence in a novel as I was by that one.

Odd as it was to come across Binx rendered older and sadder, and odd as it was to find Kate killed off, I had to give Brown credit. He was a Percyist, it was obvious, and he'd pulled off the best possible Moviegoer homage: to borrow Binx for his own novel. And better still--and sadder still--I think Brown gets him, and Kate, right.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Tuesday

For all the buildup to Mardi Gras that runs through The Moviegoer, it’s almost inevitable that Binx and Kate are nowhere near New Orleans when Fat Tuesday finally comes. I had a crazy writing teacher who liked to refer to this sort of thing as “the swerve.” It reminds me a little of one of my favorite Barry Hannah stories. It’s called “Idaho,” and it’s about a year he spends teaching at the University of Montana, riding his BMW motorcycle up into the Lolo Pass almost—but never quite—to Idaho.

Binx and Kate spend most of Mardi Gras on a Scenicruiser bus “plunging along the Illinois bank of the Mississippi through a region of sooty glens” on their way back to New Orleans from Chicago. It’s an oddly decorous choice for a novelist--to skip the wild color of the carnival and the crewes and the party and to give us instead the gray routine of the Scenicruiser rolling through Evansville. It’s almost like one of those scenes in old movies that primly cut away just as the lovers fall to the couch.

By the time Binx and Kate get back to New Orleans, all we can see is the exhausted mess, the street cleaners pushing “confetti and finery into soggy heaps in the gutters.”

Monday, February 15, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Monday

After three months sunk in the gray of Chicago winter, it’s almost perversely fun to come to Binx’s take on Chicago. It’s so bleak and despairing—and dead-on--that I have to laugh:

The wind blows in steady from the Lake and claims the space for its own, scouring every inch of the pavements and the cold stony fronts of the building. It presses down between buildings, shouldering them apart in skyey fields of light and air. The air is windpressed into a lens, magnifying and sharpening and silencing—everything is silenced in the uproar of the wind that comes ransacking down out of the North. This is a city where no one dares dispute the claim of the wind and the skyey space to the out-of-doors. This Midwestern sky is the nakedest loneliest sky in America.

This makes me want to stay under covers until maybe June.

When I was going to school at Loyola in the '80s, I found out that Walker Percy had come to campus for a reading a year or two before I started there. I was so mad that I’d missed him that I asked around the English Department to find out if anyone had recorded his appearance. They hadn’t. But one professor told me that Percy had read something about visiting Chicago as a boy to see the World’s Fair. That sounds a lot like Binx’s memory of his first boyhood encounter with the fearful “genie-soul” of the city. I wonder if Percy was about as enthused about traveling to Chicago as Binx is: “Misery misery son of a bitch of all miseries. . .”

I can’t really argue with him.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Sunday

I went to Catholic schools in the '70s, which put me among one of the first waves of Catholic kids who never knew a Latin Mass. Our parish had a guitar Mass and a youth group and a cool, young, sideburned priest. All of it—even the sideburns—seemed part of the new spirit of progressive, post-conciliar reform. We were taught to feel fortunate that the Ancient and Eternal church was now New and Improved. The old ways—Latin, and Communion rails, and priests facing the altar—seemed dark and mysterious and were rarely mentioned.

So I have to sit up and take notice when Binx and Sharon get dragged to Sunday Mass in Biloxi with the Smiths. The whole scene seems like a time capsule from that fabled era just before the Church, finally, entered modernity. The first thing that seems odd is that Binx tell us that the place is packed:

A woman comes up the aisle, leans over and looks down our pew. She gives me an especially hard look. I do not budge. It is like the subway. Roy Smith, who got home just in time to change into a clean perforated shirt, gives up his seat to a little girl and kneels in the aisle with several other men, kneels on one knee like a tackle, elbow propped on his upright knee, hands clasped sideways. His face is dark with blood, his breath whistles in his nose as he studies the chips in the terrazzo floor.

I’ve seen men give up their seats and kneel florid-faced in church aisles, too, but only at midnight on Christmas Eve. Finally, Binx gives us the scene through Sharon’s eyes, with her “sweet catholic wonder peculiar to a certain kind of Protestant girl:”

She thinks: how odd they all are, and him too—all that commotion about getting here and now that they are here, it is as if it were over before it began—each has lapased into his own blank-eyed vacancy and the priest has turned his back.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Saturday

One of the things I’d only noticed after I’d read The Moviegoer a few times is how little sleep Binx gets. He must be one of the great insomniacs in American fiction. He has another restless night at the Smith’s fishing camp on Saturday, after he spirits his secretary Sharon away from the office for a trip to the beach: “Three o’clock and suddenly awake amid the smell of dreams and of the years come back and peopled and blown away again like smoke.” That’s a little too elegiac for me, but before long Binx gets back, literally, to earth. “I roll over and fall in a heap on the floor and lie shivering on the boards, worse off than the miserablest muskrat in the swamp.” I like that not-quite-eloquent “miserablest.”

In fact, I like all the earthiness of Binx’s Saturday: the way he turns his car accident to good use in his seduction of Sharon; the beer and crabs under a naked light bulb at the Smith’s; their pine-country screening of Fort Dobbs at the Moonlite Drive-In. It’s all a welcome relief from the Garden District lunches and the musing talks about life and the universe, and Aunt Emily's stoicism. As much as I love Binx’s search and his private Kierkegaardian vocabulary (repetitions and rotations and everydayness), his basic greed and concupiscence is crucial, too. One side of his character earns the other. “I think of Sharon and American Motors,” he tells us. “It closed yesterday at 30 1/4.”

Friday, February 12, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Friday

The Moviegoer was for me a slightly dangerous book. Binx, in his own eccentric and acidly funny way, can be awfully charming--so charming that you might forget how messed up he is. He became a hero to me when I read the book in college. I suppose I saw in his ironic withdrawal (or what some would call his smugness) the ideal stance for the smart young man. I know I aspired to be as cool and noncommittal as Binx--as I learned, not necessarily a strategy for great interpersonal success.

Writing in The New York Review of Books in 2005, Joyce Carol Oates identified Binx as one of a string of solitary, cool, self-absorbed males in American fiction—other examples including Saul Bellow’s Joseph from Dangling Man, and the narrator of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision.

I thought she was a little hard on Binx. His detachment is, in part, an effort to find a stance for himself in relationship to all the pompous asses around him. Typically, he recalls pledging a frat in college (“Did you or did you not feel a unique something when you walked into this house?” he is asked) and just as typically, spends his four years there lazing on the porch and “not acquiring a single honor.”

Or consider his favorite radio program: “This I Believe,” in which “the highest-minded people in our country” state “their personal credos.” (“Monks have their compline, I have 'This I Believe.'”) Binx remembers the time he sent in his own entry. “Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer in New Orleans,” it ran. “I believe in a good kick in the ass. This—I believe.”

There’s no denying Binx’s pathology, though. And when he wanders out to the bus shelter outside Mrs. Schexnaydre’s place in the middle of the night only to find a distressed Kate, it’s hard to know which of the pair is in worse shape. First Binx proposes marriage. And when Kate panics, he tells her—because she asks him to—that everything is going to be all right.

Is it me, or is this when we know for sure that nothing is going to be all right?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Thursday

Binx likes to talk about his “exile in Gentilly,” as if his life among the ranch houses and gas stations linked him with the ancient desert monastics. Gentilly may be a kind of desert, but Binx is taken with the everyday wonder of the place. “The concrete is virginal, as grainy as they day it was poured,” he notices. And later, during a middle-of-the-night stroll: “The swimming pools steam like sleeping geysers.” One of the things I’ve always prized about The Moviegoer is the way it undercuts expectations about how a postwar American novel will portray the suburbs. Yates and Updike and Cheever and the rest have told us that suburbs are bleak outposts of stifling conventionality. Percy doesn’t cheerlead for suburbia, but he lets Binx tune into some of its magic:

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; they 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. In the last sector of apple green a Lockheed Connie lowers from Mobile, her running lights blinking in the dusk. Station wagons and Greyhounds and diesel rigs rumble toward the Gulf Coast, their fabulous taillights glowing like rubies in the darkening east. Most of the commercial buildings are empty except the filling stations where attendants hose down the concrete under the glowing discs and shells and stars.

When Binx gets home from work on Thursday evening, he finds a note from his Aunt Emily waiting for him. It’s one of her bits of unsolicited advice: “Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity. . .”

This is rich, coming as it does after Binx’s day at the office, which he spent swooning over his new secretary, Sharon. (“Her bottom is so beautiful that once as she crossed the room to the cooler I felt my eyes smart with tears of gratitude.”) Later, after a western with Kate, and an insomniac night spent wandering the neighborhood, he falls asleep on the ground in his landlord’s yard.

No one’s going to confuse Binx with Marcus Aurelius.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Wednesday

It’s a week before Ash Wednesday, which means it’s time for me to launch into my annual re-reading of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, which is set in New Orleans in the run-up to Mardi Gras. I’ve been re-reading The Moviegoer every year since it was assigned to me for a class in 20th Century American Fiction at Loyola back in the depths of the Reagan era. (Thank you, Professor Hugh Egan.) For the last few years, I’ve been reading the book in real time, which is to say I read the sections of the book that take place on the Wednesday before Mardi Gras on that Wednesday, the Thursday sections on Thursday, etc. There’s no very compelling reason to read like this and some good reasons not to—for one thing, trying to explain this system makes you sound a little unhinged. But I do it mainly because I think Binx Bolling, The Moviegoer’s hero and narrator, would approve.

Binx, the nearly-thirty-year-old stockbroker who is making a project of “living the most ordinary life imaginable,” is on to the peculiar wonder of finding oneself, say, in a moviehouse that one had gone to years earlier, seeing the same sort of movie, during the same season. He calls it a repetition: “A reenactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed, in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”

So my re-reading is supposed to be a kind of nod to Binx, a half-assed repetition.

One of the first things Binx tells us about his life is that it’s an uneventful one. It’s an odd way to start a novel, this grabbing the reader by the lapels and insisting on one’s utter mundaneness. Binx goes on at some length regarding this point: how he abandoned the Garden District for the middle-class suburb of Gentilly; how he rents a basement apartment from the widow Mrs. Schexnaydre (“a vigorous pony-size blond”); how he likes nothing better than his trips to the movies.

Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

Wednesday’s main event is Binx’s trip to his aunt’s house for lunch and “one of her serious talks.” On the way he spots William Holden on Royal Street and trails him and his “heightened reality” for a block or two. (“Holden has turned down Toulouse shedding light as he goes.’) He also runs into a friend on Canal Street and listens to him bullshit about a recently deceased client. (“That man spoke me for two hours about the history of the crystallization of sugar and it was pure romance. I was fascinated.”) Then, at lunch, we meet the family: his deeply depressed cousin Kate, her grasping fiancĂ© Walter, and Binx’s domineering aunt, who wheedles a promise from Binx that in one week—on his thirtieth birthday—he will report back to her on his plans for the rest of his life. (She wants him to go to medical school.)

Much gets made of the “search” that Binx announces in this opening section of the novel. He’s a little vague on the details--it’s “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” Some critics, following Percy’s lead, have latched on to the existential crisis and read The Moviegoer as if it were a novelization of Kierkegaard. But I’d pay less attention to philosopher Binx than to smart-ass Binx, the droll, cool camera-eye. He has a talent for attracting the pompous and ultra-serious, and he does us the service of catching and recording, for example, that business about the crystallization of sugar. That’s worth as much as any search.

Tomorrow: Binx plots the seduction of his new secretary and borrows a Reader's Digest from Mrs. Schexnaydre.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


As part of my ongoing effort to stay on intellectual par with my eight-year-old son, I’ve been reading about chess. AJ is a chess player. For a while now, I’ve been trying to fool him into thinking that I understand the game by nodding sagely and saying things like, “Ah, yes, the Schlieffen Opening.” But I’m pretty sure he’s on to me.

Anyway, I read Garry Kasparov’s recent piece on chess and computers in the New York Review of Books and liked how he complained about one of the questions journalists are always asking chess champions: How many moves ahead do you see? Kasparov calls this kind of question “an attempt by an outsider to ask something insightful and failing to do so. It’s the equivalent of asking Lance Armstrong how many times he shifts gears during the Tour de France.” He even makes a mini-case against “seeing ahead,” recounting how in one tournament game, he was able to visualize the winning position “a full fifteen moves ahead—an unusual feat.” Only after he’d gambled, mounted an attack and won with the moves he’d envisioned early in the game did he realize that he’d overlooked an easier, shorter route to victory.

I tried dropping some of my newfound chess knowledge into conversation today, thinking I might impress my kid. But he wasn't buying it. He wanted to play football in the family room. Nice of the boy to come down to my level.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Golly, Mr. Know-It-All

A few days ago, my son asked me how many strings were on a ukulele. Not long before that, he asked me if I knew Gordie Howe’s birthday. (The answers, for the record, are four and March 31, 1928, respectively.) I don’t know why he thought I would know this stuff, except that he has a pretty remarkable collection of arcane facts in his own head. He has developed a little bit of a mania for reference books. He likes quizzing me on obscure baseball records at the breakfast table, and he seems to have great confidence in my ability to answer. I hate to let him down, but if I ever knew that Mickey Mantle hit the longest home run ever recorded (643 feet at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium in 1960) I surely couldn’t retrieve that information before I’ve finished making coffee.

Maybe I should be flattered that he thinks I’m Mr. Know-It-All. But more likely, he just understands that living in the Age of Google means never having to say “I don’t know.”