By Weston Harty
In The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling has distanced himself from his family and the older, more prominent neighborhoods in New Orleans in order to observe from afar the nature of the city and conduct his search, an attempt to discover his true self and separate himself from mundane everydayness. While Walker Percy does not give exact locations of where Binx lives and travels to over the course of the novel, he does give enough secondary information to approximate these places. When placed on a map, Binx’s self-imposed seclusion, and perhaps his attempt to avoid the path Aunt Emily has chosen for him, becomes quite evident.
First and foremost is the location of his house. While his Aunt Emily resides in the wealthy Garden District, Binx himself has chosen to live in the more suburban and middle class Gentilly section of the city in a basement apartment in the home of Mrs. Schexnaydre (4). Textual references mention that the house is located near a school and church on Elysian Fields Avenue, and that by walking up Elysian Fields, he enters a distinctly suburban and seemingly wealthier area consisting of homes with swimming pools and carefully manicured lawns rather than the duplexes and ranch houses surrounding Mrs. Schexnaydre’s house (6, 9, 117). All of this information places his apartment fairly far up Elysian Fields, and also in a distinctly different environment than that of the old money neighborhood in the Garden District where his Aunt resides. This setting would seem to perfectly suit Binx’s search, as it lacks the distinctiveness and distractions of the surrounding neighborhoods like the French Quarter and Garden District, but is still close enough for him to observe the goings on in these locations.
Shortly after the novel begins, Binx begins a trek to his Aunt’s house, which starts with him taking the Gentilly bus down Elysian Fields to the corner of Esplanade, located on the border of the French Quarter (11). From here he disembarks and walks the rest of the way, through the French Quarter, hoping to catch a glance of the movie star William Holden. About halfway through his walk in the Quarter he does happen to spy Holden, coming out of Pirate’s Alley and onto Royal Street. For roughly a block and a half he observes Holden and his interaction with the newlywed couple, introducing his idea of the certification of place along the way. Holden plays a key role because Binx assumes that Holden’s mere presence in the Quarter validates it as a place. Binx is only able to relate to real life through what he sees in movies, a phenomenon which recurs when Binx adopts a variety of actors’ personas in his attempt to woo his new secretary Sharon (15). Unfortunately, Percy does not give an exact location of Aunt Emily’s home, and unlike Binx’s house, there are no other references to its location other than that it is in the Garden District. But what is evident from the map is that the walk from Esplanade to the Garden District is no short jaunt. That Binx would willingly walk this distance only goes to show just how engrossed he is in his search. The distance between where Binx encounters Holden to an arbitrary location near the middle of the Garden District is about two and half miles. Factoring in the three and half mile bus ride, Binx’s journey, which could easily have taken a quarter of an hour by car, would probably take him upwards of an hour instead. While Binx sees the extended journey as an opportunity to mull over his course in life, it can also easily be seen as delaying his eventual meeting with his Aunt, a microcosm for delaying the progression of his life.
The second big journey mapped is Binx’s car ride with Sharon along the gulf and eventually to Ship Island (starts on 120). Again, Binx’s desire for isolation is quite easily seen by just how far he drives- about a seventy mile car ride just to get to the port from where they presumably depart, on a twelve mile boat ride, to Ship Island. Further, that they get involved in an accident when they cross Bay St. Louis, and then Binx insists on driving about twelve more miles, and that he is clearly annoyed at having to share an entire island with a 4H Club outing shows just how desperately he wants to completely seclude himself from the outside world (120, 128). His pattern of wooing his secretaries with long drives is reminiscent of the final scenes in many romance movies, where the couple, serendipitously joined by chance, in this case a woman new to New Orleans finding love at the hands of her employer, drive off into the sunset. But this comparison also explains why the characteristic malaise that Binx often describes sets in on these car rides. Unlike the movies, where the lovers live happily ever after, Binx invariably sinks into a malaise when he subconsciously realizes that the woman he has chosen is not the perfect soul-mate, but rather just another woman who spent an afternoon with him. However, because he is unable to separate his own life from the movies, he is unable to become aware of what is actually happening, and repeats the same journey with each of his secretaries, with each coming to the same conclusion.
On his way back from Ship Island he and Sharon stop by his mother’s fishing camp, located somewhere in the vicinity of Pearl River. Again, while the location is not specified, the approximate place is quite secluded. While Binx did not expect to see his family here, they are present nevertheless and this allows Percy to show that Binx does have real connections with people, particularly through his interactions with Lonnie. It is here, at his mother’s fishing camp that the end of Binx’s search begins. After this episode is his trip to Chicago with Kate, which then proceeds directly to the epilogue where Binx returns with a defined appreciation for his native city of New Orleans. That Binx is able to connect on a deeply human level while in a secluded location like the fishing camp seems to push Binx to end his search, although he intends while at the fishing camp to proceed even deeper. Binx’s inability to further his search perhaps awakens him to the possibility that in conducting a search to find himself, he is actually distancing himself from real life. Upon his return to New Orleans, he marries Kate, moves out of his isolation in Gentilly to a traditional shotgun cottage, and goes to medical school.
Analyzing The Moviegoer with the aid of mapping several important locations and trips in the novel makes Binx’s desire to isolate himself much clearer. He is not walking a few blocks to his Aunt’s house, but rather a few miles and he embarks on an eighty two mile commute to the most isolated plot, Ship Island. The Ship Island journey also demonstrates his habitual attempts to recreate movie-like scenes in real life. Instead of romancing his love interests with dinner or some other traditional means, he takes his potential partner on a lengthy trip in his convertible to a remote, picturesque location, believing the setting with kindle romance. The map, then, illuminates Binx’s self-imposed isolation when he attempts to delay his life in favor of conducting “the search.” His isolation ultimately, however, brings him back to the people and place he strove to separate himself from.
1) Custom Google Map, March 2013
2. Gentilly section New Orleans, Louisiana, some 7 &1/2 years after the Katrina levee failure disaster, 2013, by Infrogmation of New Orleans, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gentilly_Feb_2013_Nice_House.JPG
3. Aerial View of United States Gulf Coast Barrier Island Ship Island, 2004, By the United States Geological Survey, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ship_Island_Sept_2004.JPG
4. Fishing Camps, at Goose Point, 1972, By John Messina, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FISHING_CAMPS,_AT_GOOSE_POINT_-_NARA_-_544201.jpg
Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer.  New York: Vintage International, 1998. Print.