The Moviegoer

I just finished reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, published in 1960. I chose this novel for a number of reasons. First, very simply is its timing–1960 means Percy was at work on it during the years that interest me the most, the late 1950s. Second, the early history of rock and roll is intimately tied up with Southern history and Southern world views. No matter how it morphed and divided and no matter how many different regions and countries got involved in later years, there is a Southern essence that pervades those early recordings. The Everly Brothers (the focus of my research) were essentially Southern in spite of the fact that they spent a good portion of their childhood in Iowa. They were born in Kentucky and their parents were from Kentucky and they returned to Nashville when it came time to try their hand at a professional career. They joined a long list of musicians from around various parts of the South that arrived in Nashville, Memphis, or Chicago, seeking their moment in the sun: Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison (Texas), Chuck Berry (St. Louis), Elvis (Mississippi), Little Richard (Georgia), and many others. 

The protagonist, Binx Bolling, is a kind of Southerner that I understand but cannot claim to be. As Linda Ray Pratt pointed out in “Elvis, or the Ironies of a Southern Identity” (in Elvis: Images and Fancies, ed. Jac L. Tharpe, 40-51 [Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1979]), most of us who grew up in the South–at least until the 1980s–were only one or two generations removed from poverty. Binx, as the son of a doctor and related to lawyers and businessmen, is part of the shabby chic South that I cannot claim for myself. On the other hand, the portion of the South that he represents certainly resonates with me–it is what we all strived for, that certain nobility of character, that recognition that even though we were from the South–with all its complicated history and problems and failures and successes–we were still valuable to American society. As his Aunt Emily says at one point, “I will also plead guilty to another charge. The charge is that people belonging to my class think they’re better than other people. You’re damn right we’re better.” In this, perhaps Southerners are no different from anyone else, but the way in which it used to pervade social interaction is notable. Pratt’s essay describes this pathology much better than I can.

While Percy’s novel is interesting in terms of the Southern nature at that time, more importantly I think he presents in one character (Binx) some of the complex notions about sex that run just under the surface of all art, literature, music, and popular culture. The most telling passage is the following:

Off the bus and hopping along Wilmette happy as jaybirds, pass within a few feet of noble Midwestern girls with their clear eyes and their spendid butts and never a thought for them. What an experience, Rory [Rory Calhoun, an actor in Westerns], to be free of it for once. Rassled out. What a sickness it is, Rory, this latter-day post-Christian sex. To be pagan it would be one thing, an easement taken easily in a rosy old pagan world; to be Christian it would be another thing, fornication forbidden and not even to be thought of in the new life, and I can see that it need not be thought of if there were such a life. But to be neither pagan nor Christian but this: oh this is a sickness, Rory. For it to be longed after and dreamed of the first twenty years of one’s life, not practiced but not quite prohibited; simply longed after, longed after as a fruit not really forbidden but mock-forbidden and therefore secretly prized, prized first last and always by the cult of the naughty nice wherein everyone is nicer than Christians and naughtier than pagans, wherein there are dreamed not one but two American dreams: of Ozzie and Harriet, nicer-than-Christian folks, and of Tillie and Mac [a cartoon couple] and belly to back.

And there it is, the two Americas, bubbling under the surface during the late 1950s. The Everly Brothers represented, at least on the surface, that nicer-than-Christian folks fantasy while singing about the Tillie and Mac world, which seemed to offer so much more titillation.

Below is Rory Calhoun, Binx Bolling’s alter ego, and to some degree Walker Percy’s.

 

Rory Calhoun

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