The search that Walker Percy refers to in his debut novel is one that is quintessentially American and uniquely masculine.
For Binx Bolling, a young stock broker living in postwar New Orleans, the ‘everydayness’ of life is something of a daily vexation. A decorated Korean War Veteran, Bolling struggles with regret and is unable to banish the traumatic memories of his past. Yet Bolling is by no stretch your typical run of the mill battle scarred soldier. Unassuming and overly contemplative, he lacks self esteem and constantly defines himself in relation to his family, friends and his quartet of girlfriends (so much so that he almost resembles an older, wealthier and more successful Holden Caulfield). Fast approaching 30 – a biblical reference on Percy’s part and an undesirable milestone in Bolling’s eyes – he bitterly laments over his lack of success in life and his gnostic nonfulfillment:
‘Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies – my only talent – smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall – on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire’.
Perhaps more so than any of his other psychological afflications, Bolling is most encumbered by his own personal malaise. He is mentally lethargic, yet his insistence on continuous contemplation only prolongs his unease. Yet this malaise, it would seem, is an amalgamation of a disillusionment with the mundane repetitive nature of the everyday – this is tenuous, but also perversely solacious for Bolling – and of course, his consistent flashbacks of the war. This affliction undoubtedly impairs his ability to commit to long term relationships and to seriously visualise a future beyond the present. To add insult to his fragile mental state, Bolling’s instability is underpinned by his own fluctuating sense of masculinity. Dominated by his imperious aunt, the little independence he enjoys is often undermined and his tongue-in-cheek willingness to submit to her whims is indicative of his lack of individuality.
Like any loner, he also has an overly active imagination and his recollections, whilst contemplative are often philosophical – and even border on the realms of the existential (Percy was particularly well versed in the works of Søren Kierkegaard). As a result, Bolling finds it difficult to relate to any of the people he encounters in his day to day life other than his cousin Kate (who displays symptoms of bi polar disorder and ADHD). Due to her unstable mental condition, Bolling is tasked with keeping Kate company by his authoritative Aunt and soon develops affections for Kate who, despite her unpredictability harbours a mutual enthrallment (as you will discover when you encounter the novel, when it comes to personal relationships Percy is especially enigmatic).
Yet despite his incessant procrastination (and perhaps consequently) Bolling is nevertheless regimental in inflicting his own isolation. Alternating between fatalistic wit and introverted lamentation, he ponders over the true nature of death, albeit in a social and even spiritual sense:
‘For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.
It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say. I hear myself or someone else saying things like: “In my opinion the Russian people are a great people, but–” or “Yes, what you say about the hypocrisy of the North is unquestionably true. However–” and I think to myself: this is death. Lately it is all I can do to carry on such everyday conversations, because my cheek has developed a tendency to twitch of its own accord’.
Such a ‘death’ is perhaps emblematic of Bolling’s deep rooted spiritual despondency. He feels dejected and is alienated from the meager amount of self-worth he is able to retain in his day to day life. Unable to motivate himself and severely lacking in self belief, he prefers instead to (literally) lose himself in films and visits the cinema frequently:
‘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”.
Whilst embodying the archetypal male-loner, Bolling seeks the escapism of film rather than a reinforcement of his own wavering masculine identity. As he confesses, he prefers the existential gratification that films provide as opposed to the sincere and meaningful fulfillment of human relationships (which require seemingly too much effort). Yet at the root of Bolling’s inner disdain is a desire to hide and conceal himself within the ineffectual façade he so desperately clings to – an acutely American dilemma.