“Us and Them”: Racial Boundaries in Glass House

By Maddy Boylan George

The disparity in wealth, class, and race is shown through Christine Wiltz’s novel Glass House. Set in the late 1980s, the novel reflects the racial tensions present in New Orleans at a time when a weakened economy and unemployment created a wider disparity between the races and an increase in criminal activity. The two main settings in the novel, the Convent Street Project and the old homes in the Garden District, are geographically very close, thus the differences and tensions between the two are heightened. By only being separated by several blocks, underlying currents of ownership and territory are felt. The levels of crime and the proximity of bordering neighbourhoods increased ill feeling in New Orleans to the point where it was no longer safe to be in certain areas. As geographer Peirce Lewis points out, “It is no news that poverty breeds crime, and it did so with terrible effect in New Orleans during the late 1980s and early 90s. For a time, New Orleans was the murder capital of the U.S. . . . . the killings were often associated with disputes over drugs or gang turf. Muggings and robberies were commonplace, and many citizens were terror-stricken, especially affluent whites who lived near the boundaries of black neighborhoods  Across the city. . . .razor-wire appeared atop household walls, and throughout the city heavy padlocked chains were wrapped around the ornate iron gates that barred entrance to private dwellings” (Lewis, 128).

Fischer Projects

The dual setting of the novel reflects the key theme of fear in Glass House; by splitting the novel and the Garden District into specific territories and zones, a feeling of warfare is created. In theory all areas of a city should be public and open to all residents and visitors; however this is not the case in New Orleans. By using a well-known street as a dividing line between the two areas, Wiltz reflects the very real division of land, and the chaos that occurs when individuals try and cross the line. Fear is a recurrent theme throughout the novel and Wiltz explores the belief that fear creates fear. By operating an “us and them” division between the “haves and have-nots”, a suspicion of the other side occurs. Both sides believe that their fear is entirely justified and use their houses as fortresses to hide inside, although as the novel progresses we see that the houses on either side are not safe, regardless of the wealth of the owners. Wiltz states in an interview that, “everything that happens in this book is the consequence of fear. So if the fear didn’t exist, these acts couldn’t happen…the fear is so deep and so palpable that it is going to produce its own consequences and that is the dark side, the reality.” (James, 17)

Hysteria is exacerbated as the novel progresses and sporadic attacks occur on both sides. The characters are worked up into an extreme frenzy of accusation and panic, becoming more dangerous to themselves, and to others. The black residents need protection from the New Orleans Police Department, and the white residents believe that they need protection from the black side. In many ways the white residents are more dangerous than the violent criminals in the Project. Throughout the novel whites are figures of authority, such as Mr Untermeyer, the lawyer, or police officers like Lyle; or they are very wealthy and have a considerable amount of power within their own area. Wiltz examines what happens when wealthy and powerful people are frightened, and feel the need to defend themselves. By arming individuals who do not really need weapons, the white side becomes increasingly dangerous and panicked.

NOPD-Grafitti-big

Lyle Hindermann in particular, “banker by day, crimestopper  by night” (Wiltz, 51) represents the level of extreme fear that results in him becoming violent and obsessed with battling crime. Extremely racist, he embodies everything that is wrong with the New Orleans Police Department; corrupt, angry, and running on an aggressive adrenaline that causes him to become increasingly manic as the novel goes on. His wife Sandy states that Lyle had gone “mad on law and order” (55). Lyle has embarked upon a personal vendetta to keep black crime out of their area, because he experienced a neighbor being attacked, and felt affronted by the audacity of black criminals daring to enter the white neighborhood  rather than keep to their own side. Lyle is able to play at God and has no interest in equality and creating a better New Orleans.

Lyle exacerbates fear in the white neighborhood by introducing guns into a domestic scene. They have no place at a dinner party but he forces them upon his old friend Thea repeatedly and causes her to be terrified in her own home. As soon as she arrives back in New Orleans from Massachusetts she is made to feel unsafe and threatened. As part of the “white side” she is immediately expected to assimilate into the group, her new friends and neighbors assume that she will also want to defend herself. Thea is the only person present at the dinner party who has actually experienced any violence at the hands of black men; despite the murder of her parents she bears no grudges and is unwilling to join Lyle’s crusade. Lyle terrifies Thea and tries to force her to use a gun to protect herself: “I think you may be in some danger,” he said to her. “That’s why I’m here-I’m afraid for you.” And indeed, Thea could see he was afraid, so afraid he was frightening….Lyle was so afraid that his fear was reaching out to her, infecting her” (180).

When Thea entertains the idea of having a burglar alarm put in, she feels ashamed and embarrassed by her African American friend’s response. “Laughed at by Burgess and his girlfriend for putting in a burglar alarm to keep them out, because it was them, all of them, the alarm was supposed to keep out; it was, after all, them against us.” (Wiltz, 102) Thea is reluctant to get an alarm system as she feels this will not help to make her feel safe: “She could imagine herself lying awake at night waiting for the alarm to go off, in bed cringing against the anticipated blast of noise….Bobby solved her dilemma. He arrived at the house and surprised her with a dog.” (Wiltz, 107) The security system of a guard dog allows Thea to feel safer, yet it also presents a less aggressive view to the outside world. Rather than resorting to expensive security systems and barbed wire, Thea is able to compromise. She is still able to feel safe in her own home, but without resorting to violence as a means of protection.

Lyle’s actions become increasingly manic as the novel continues, and he becomes determined to find out who the “Bishop of Convent Street” is. In his paranoid state he helps to arm some of his friends and neighbors, by teaching them how to shoot, and ensuring that they all buy burglar alarms. At the dinner party to celebrate Thea’s return, her neighbors introduce her to the common practice of owning a gun. “Thea looked at Mona…her eyes automatically riveting to Mona’s hands, a largo opal circled by diamonds on the right hand, a huge emerald-cut diamond flanked by sapphire ring guards on the left… Imagine those uptown ladies shooting to kill, their legs spread wide as far as their fashionable clothes would allow, in a policeman’s crouch as taught by Lyle, their jewel-bedecked hands clutching their guns.” (Wiltz, 52) The juxtaposition of such luxury contrasted with weapons makes the white side seem even more ridiculous.  Guns are a very real form of protection in the Projects; in the Garden District they are seen as another fashionable accessory that everyone must own. The real, dangerous implications of owning a weapon seem less significant when the threat is reduced, as it is in the Garden District, where the level of crime and poverty in non-existent in comparison with the Projects. Lyle is effectively creating a miniature army that is trained and willing to use firearms. Fortunately the white neighborhood does not resort to violence in the climax of the novel, although the fact that they are ready and willing to use guns increases the tension between the two races.

GARDEN DISTRICT 2

At the end of the novel Lyle’s murder of the innocent Sherree as he pursues her boyfriend Dexter causes the population of the Project to insist on change and protection from the police.  He has absolutely no respect for the Project residents. He appears unaffected by the chaos that has resulted from his murder of Sherree; he refers to the “civil rights violations crap” (181) at the town hall, a direct result of corrupt police officers. Every time that the police are mentioned in the novel they are either violent or fraudulent, and in the worst case they are a volunteer like Lyle, who is able to murder a pregnant woman and get away with it. In Glass House, guns represent an old city with old problems and no clear way of resolving them. Weapons personify fear; they allow fear to become a very real and physical threat. By encouraging weapons within the homes of the white side, the residents are actively making their own situation worse and more explosive. Wiltz uses Thea as an indication that physical violence can be prevented by remaining open-minded and allowing opposing sides to develop relationships. Her friendship with Burgess, in particular, is testimony to the novel’s underlying message of racial integration.

Illustrations

1. The Fischer Projects, New Orleans. The housing project used by Christine Wiltz as a basis for the fictionalised Convent Street Project.

2. The message “N.O.P.D beat me down” appeared across New Orleans as part of a protest against Law Enforcement corruption.

3. An example of a mansion in the Garden District, the physical representation of wealth in the novel.

Works Cited

James, Theresa. “A Conversation with Christine Wiltz.” Xavier Review 15.2 (fall 1995): 13-24

Lewis, Pierce F. New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Center for American Places, 2003.

Wiltz, Christine. Glass House. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

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Mardi Gras and Masks: How Relationships Begin and End in Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel

By Jack Lawler

Set against the backdrop of New Orleans, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel deals with the relationship between the two protagonists, Michael and Kelly, and explores how issues such as emotional withholding and miscommunication lead to the disintegration of their marriage. Butler constantly moves between past and present, as Michael and Kelly sift through memories, trying to make sense of how it all went wrong. Each of them repeatedly returns to the memory of their first meeting, at Mardi Gras some 20 years earlier, where they fell in love. Butler uses this cultural icon, Mardi Gras, and applies it in a psychological way in order to illuminate Michael and Kelly’s relationship and illustrate how their mutual reticence initially drew them to each other. Butler then uses costumes, which both literally and metaphorically cloak one’s true self, to represent the concealment of thoughts and emotions that stems from this reticence and ultimately destroys their marriage.

bourbonMichael and Kelly’s mutual desire to be alone during Mardi Gras, known for its huge parties and massive crowds, leads to their original, chance encounter and illustrates their natural inclinations towards solitude. Kelly explains how at Mardi Gras she is drawn, not to the drinking or partying that the event is known for, but to the sense of invisibility she feels in the throngs of the crowds. She “wonders if this is one of the allures of Mardi Gras, to feel this way: unseen, unseeable, unknowable in the midst of the tumult of many others. And the more intense the crowd, the more comfortably bound inside herself she feels”. (20) This behavior illustrates Kelly’s tendency to withdraw from others, to retreat to her inner world of thoughts and emotions. Her desire to disappear, to remain unknown at the biggest party of the year, is also seen in Michael. When he comes across her being harassed by three drunks, he himself is alone, just like her. He is dressed simply, “wearing a Tulane Law sweatshirt” (16), and is not noticeably intoxicated or involved in the party scene. This initial impression of Michael and Kelly that Butler gives us establishes the characters as loners of sorts, and is repeated throughout the novel, as we see Michael “just wanting to be left alone” (88) at Laurie’s dinner party, and Kelly spending more time at the bar than with other people at cocktail parties (152). These tendencies not only illustrate their compatibility, but also serve as a plot device to allow their worlds to collide: had either of them been in a group of people, they never would have met.

Michael and Kelly’s desire for solitude leads to their attempts to remain unknowable, a theme that Butler explores through the use of costumes. Costumes serve to mask someone, to allow them to act like someone they are not, a parallel with the general theme of the novel: the concealment of one’s true self.  Yet, what the costume represents is different in each instance. Michael and his young girlfriend Laurie attend a party at Oak Alley plantation, where they dress up as old plantation owner, with Michael in an “antebellum tuxedo” (47), and Laurie in a “hoop skirted gown” (48). Their outfits suggest the old school romanticism and stoicism that is emblematic of the personality Michael strives to cultivate, the default “mask” that he puts on for the world. Yet these costumes are, for both of them, uncomfortable, and Michael spends the entire time with a “niggling unease” (46). Despite the ideal that the costumes represent, which Michael strives to attain, he remains unnatural, much like his relationship with Laurie. He should be perfectly happy with her, a “beautiful young woman who seems quite comfortable with him,” (183) yet he can’t shake the feeling that something is off. No matter how hard he tries, the costume simply does not fit.

In the same way that Michael’s costume is unnatural, Kelly struggles to be comfortable in her Catwoman costume at Mardi Gras and the image of sexuality that it portrays.  Her costume consists of  “black stiletto boots and black leggings and a black mock-turtle tee and black cat ears” (16). This costume sexualizes Kelly and attracts attention from men, attention she rejects several times before Michael steps in and saves her. The costume projects confident sexuality, even promiscuity, an image that Kelly is not really comfortable with. We realize this when she discusses the women who flashed the crowd of men, saying “she never quite identified with the two young women” (25), ultimately running away to escape the same fate as them. The costume is a front that she puts up to avoid vulnerability, one that only comes down when she is alone with Michael, and “her black mask is gone so she can cry and her painted cat whiskers are streaked down her cheeks from tears.” (16)Parlor

With her costume destroyed and her mask literally gone from her face, Kelly drops her guards and allows herself to be weak in front of Michael, a vulnerability that is reflected life in New Orleans in general. From this vulnerability comes their first sexual encounter, and the two quickly fall in love. It is no accident that New Orleans is the site of this vulnerability: according to Butler himself, “the life of openly expressed feeling is what New Orleans really represents (…) a city that is very conscious of its own vulnerability. One reason the partying is so hard and the life so intense is that everyone knows that at any time, on any given summer day, the city could vanish” (Berry 1). Kelly and Michael continually return to room 303 at the Olivier House, in hopes of recapturing the magic of that first Mardi Gras. However, they are never able to do so, as Michael and Kelly are unable to find the same vulnerability, to remove their “masks” and reveal their true feelings: Michael cannot tell Kelly that he loves her and Kelly is too proud to tell Michael her emotional needs, because, as she tells her sister, “if you have to ask, it doesn’t count” (99). Ultimately, the silence that once drew them together now drives them apart. Butler suggests that only once we throw off our masks, both literally and metaphorically, and expose our true selves, can we find the emotional satisfaction that we desire.

Illustrations

1. A crowded Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras. (2012) Image Courtesy of “That Girl” Blog. http://adoseofla.blogspot.com/2012/02/happy-mardi-gras-new-orleans-tradition.html

2. The parlor to room 216 of the Olivier House (2013) Image Courtesy of Olivier House Hotel.

Works Cited

Butler, Robert Olen. A Small Hotel. New York: Grove Press, 2011. Print.

Berry, Lorainne. “Interview with Robert Olen Butler: The Danger of Wanting to be A Writer”. Talking Writing. (2012) http://talkingwriting.com/robert-olen-butler-the-danger-of-wanting-to-be-a-writer/

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Chris Wiltz: Forever Tied to New Orleans

By Weston Harty

Christine (Chris) Wiltz was born in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, on January 3, 1948, to Adolphe Michael and Merle Wiltz. Her family moved to a house on General Pershing Street in the middle class Broadmoor section of New Orleans, just in time for Wiltz to start elementary school. At the time, Broadmoor was predominantly Jewish, which meant that Wiltz from a young age was introduced to a variety of religions, since her father was Catholic and her mother was Protestant (Wiltz). As a youth, then, Wiltz was unknowingly experiencing the kind of cultural diversity that New Orleans always offered its residents, a diversity which she came to love and appreciate as she grew older, especially after spending time in San Francisco and Los Angeles. As Wiltz grew up, her mother entertained her by reading mystery novels, like Sherlock Holmes, and narrating stories of her own creation. These tales from Wiltz’s mother led her to start writing from an early age. Though it would be easy to point to her mother’s narratives as the inspiration for Wiltz’s ultimate decision to become an author, it was only part of the equation. Wiltz also identifies her high school English teacher as another key source of motivation when he made her editor of the high school newspaper. Here she gained experience in the writing process through the oversight of her own and her peers’ work (Wiltz). Before reaching college, Wiltz gained a love of writing and knowledge of the publication process.

After high school, Wiltz studied at four different institutions over a four-year period: the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Loyola University in New Orleans, University of New Orleans, and ultimately San Francisco State College, where she graduated with a BA in English. Wiltz stated in an interview “I started writing at such a young age that when she went to college, I didn’t think writing was something I could take a course in,” and as a consequence, she spent a great deal of her time as an undergraduate reading and digesting the works of others and spent her time outside of class “drawing pictures in the books I read and writing poetry” (Justice). After graduating, Wiltz held various jobs including working as a secretary. Wiltz cites reading Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, a famous novel of detective fiction, at the age of 25 as the moment she realized that she wanted to write detective fiction set in New Orleans (Justice). The appeal of writing crime fiction, for Wiltz, stems from her feeling that “crime novels are good vehicles for showing society at its most raw and truthful” and “the sense of justice that comes with the genre, even if it is not always a happy ending” (Wiltz). These ideas certainly show through in Glass House as the novel is grimly realistic, though it does impart a chance of a happy ending.

Her first three novels were works of detective fiction, The Killing Circle, A Diamond Before you Die, and The Emerald Lizard, which center on the detective Neal Rafferty solving mysteries in New Orleans. These works were followed by a departure from Neal Rafferty, with Glass House, the nonfiction work The Last Madam, and her new novel Shoot the Money. While her first three novels are pure detective fiction, all of her works contain elements of crime, and, more importantly, all of the novels are set in New Orleans. Wiltz sets all of her works in New Orleans because it is the area she knows the best. With the exception of two years, she has lived all of her life in New Orleans, and as a consequence, has become intimately familiar with the diverse cultural, racial, and geographical issues and settings that can be employed in her works and make for a unique location. But her two years in Los Angeles and San Francisco allowed her to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the dichotomy of the city as well: namely, that New Orleans is a very conservative Catholic city, yet is well known for being “The City that Care Forgot.” She pointed to the existence of streets like Piety and Desire, and the fact that they are located right next to each other as a way to exemplify the duality that the city embodies (Wiltz). Wiltz utilizes the wide range of people and places found in New Orleans to create character-rich worlds grounded in the reality of New Orleans.

In Glass House, Wiltz also sees the racial tension in New Orleans as distinct from other American cities. Since the city’s founding, race relations in New Orleans have always been different than in the rest of the United States. Slaves were given Sunday off, for instance, and the city had the largest population of free persons of color in the entire country. Before and after the American Civil War, there was a mixture of the African American and white populations that was not seen in any other American city, let alone in the South. While this racial mixing might have eased racial tensions, New Orleans was, after all, spared some of the race riots seen in other major American cities, there is nevertheless tension between the races that has surfaced rather dramatically in post-Katrina New Orleans.

800px-Uptown7June06MagnoliaBluetarpsTo help construct the setting of Glass House, Wiltz employed some creative liberties and adapted racially charged events that happened within the city of New Orleans and to her. In 1980, a police officer was shot near the Fischer Projects in the Algiers neighborhood of the city, setting off a wave of police brutality toward African Americans in the neighborhood and near riot conditions. Wiltz chose to relocate the event from Algiers to the fictitious Covenant Projects, representing one of the housing projects which flank the Garden District, in order to bring the event closer to the wealthy Garden District and further highlight the duality of the city in Glass House. The existence of the housing projects sandwiching the real Garden District provides anyone living in New Orleans a first-hand account of the contrast the city provides, and moving the Fischer Projects shooting to this location allowed Wiltz to make the two sides of the city more available to readers (Wiltz). Wiltz is also quick to point out that Glass House is not a retelling of the Algiers shooting, but about fear: “the black people were terrified of anything in a blue uniform and were protesting police brutality. White people were terrified that the blacks were going to riot and demanded police protection. Fear was running rampant,” and that she was looking “at the underside of reality, [wanting] to see just how dark it really is” (James 16). Using the Algiers Fischer shooting as her starting point, she imagined what could have happened if an event like that took place closer to the wealthier, whiter Garden District.

Wiltz also shared three personal anecdotes from her own life which are reminiscent of and essential to the action of the novel. First, Broadmoor was a victim of “white flight” which hit many cities across the United States throughout the mid-twentieth century. The middle class neighborhood her family moved into began to deteriorate as many of the families moved out of that part of the city and were replaced by lower class families, many African American. This changing demographic drove property values down and only encouraged the continued departure of middle class families. While Wiltz’s family remained longer than others in Broadmoor, they too eventually left as the conditions of the neighborhood declined (Wiltz). Wiltz’s experience reflects Thea’s father’s reluctance to move his store to another part of the city as the neighborhood declined. The second event happened at a much earlier age and is more directly connected to Glass House. When Wiltz was a young girl, she developed a close friendship with the daughter of her neighbor’s African American maid. The daughter often came over to play with Wiltz when her mother was working for the neighbors. For reasons unbeknownst to Wiltz at the time, the daughter stopped coming out to play and Wiltz lost a very dear friend. Much like Thea and Burgess’s childhood relationship, prejudices based on race ingrained within the older generation drove two friends apart, awakening Wiltz to the existence of race at a young age (Wiltz). Wiltz also brought up the parallel between both her and Thea returning to New Orleans after spending significant time away. For Wiltz, the two years she spent away from New Orleans allowed her to return to the city having gained at least a sense of an outsider’s perspective. In an interview Wiltz explained: “During those two years away, my understanding of the city grew in leaps and bounds- sometimes you need distance to see clearly. That’s why I had Thea come back after ten years, because her sight would be changed” (James, 13). Wiltz went on to say, “[Thea] is the one who’s got both the insider’s and the outsider’s point of view” suggesting that Thea’s “reactions might not be typical” for a lifetime New Orleans resident (James, 14). This altered perspective of the city allowed both Thea and Wiltz to fully see the character of New Orleans and gain a greater appreciation for its uniqueness and problems.

Chris Wiltz channels her deep affection and admiration for New Orleans into her works, adapting the diverse settings the city offers into all of her writings. The contradictions of New Orleans as a place match the nature of mystery and detective fiction, where the protagonist must wade through clues and evidence in order to find the answer behind a crime. In Glass House, Wiltz combines the confused racial backdrop of the city with her taste for crime fiction and own experiences, creating a riveting cautionary tale about racial fear. For Chris Wiltz, New Orleans represents both home and a bottomless source of inspiration for her writing.

Illustrations

1) Randy Moses, http://www.festigals.org/christine-wiltz/

2) Colorful House in the Garden District, 2008, Sue Cline, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jewel_Tones_Garden_District_NOLA.jpg

3) New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: C.J. Peete Development (Magnolia Projects), 2006, Infrogmation of New Orleans, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uptown7June06MagnoliaBluetarps.jpg

4) Custom Google Map, April 2013

Works Cited

James, Theresa. “A Conversation with Chris Wiltz.” Xavier Review 15.2 (1995): 13-24

Justice, Faith L. “From Mysteries to Non-fiction Thrillers: An Interview with Christine Wiltz.” 2008. n.p. (4/5/2013)

Wiltz, Christine. Telephone conversation with the author, 7 April 2013

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Brenda Marie Osbey and the Blending of Christianity and Hoodoo in New Orleans

By Allison Siegel

Brenda Marie Osbey writes poetry based on her life spent in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans that reflects the unique Creole culture in which we was raised.  Born on December 12, 1957, to Lawrence C. Osbey and Lois Hamilton Osbey, Brenda spent her childhood in a predominantly black section of the Seventh Ward and had always had a passion for writing.  While both of her parents had careers unrelated to the literary world, they had always had an interest in literature and instilled that interest in their daughter.  Osbey claims that by junior high school she knew that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up.  She pursued this interest Dillard University in New Orleans and Université Paul Valéry, Montpéllier in France before receiving her Master’s degree from the University of Kentucky in 1986.  Osbey has published various works based on Creole life in New Orleans, but her most revered work in the literary world is her collection of poems titled All Saints, which won the 1998 American Book Award.

Brenda Marie Osbey

The poems in All Saints are important to the understanding of the peculiar culture that New Orleans has had for many years.  Osbey creates a world in which the mysticism of ancient African hoodoo is mixed with the modern conception of jazz and nightlife.  The magic of Osbey’s collection in All Saints comes from her ability to depict how New Orleans culture comes from the nature of the place and is inherent in its people.  The community has passed it along through a circle of life process that perpetuates a way of life appearing to remain timeless, which is why it is so highly regarded.

An interesting dynamic that Osbey explores in her poetry is the struggle of balancing modern religion with long-standing tradition in New Orleans as the practice of African hoodoo intersects with the practice of Catholicism.  She opens her collection with the “Invocation” that speaks about the slave foundations that the city is built on – where the “homes, our streets, our churches are made;” and have “wrought iron into the vèvès that hold together the Old City and its attachments” (lines 4-6).  The juxtaposition of the iron wrought in shapes of Hoodoo saints and their little Catholic cousins shows the importance of both the hoodoo and the Catholicism in the culture of the city.  Osbey goes on to say that they both “continue to live among us” (lines 8-9).  Osbey is suggesting that the “little Catholics” are the cousins of the Hoodoo saints, not just two alternate forces working within the same space.  The city of New Orleans is built around tradition, and the practice of African hoodoo has been incorporated into the Catholic religion for the people – the bond is natural for them.

In the poem “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead” the interesting combination of hoodoo spirituality and Catholic practice can be seen as a family tries to grieve and the young girl who is the speaker grows in her understanding of this delicate balance. Carrying around silver coins, or burning incense, or sprinkling cinnamon over the back door are all hoodoo practices, but they are paired with the Catholic traditions of attending a wake and lighting votive candles.  By the end of the poem the young girl has experience with both religious practices and the girl experiences both religious practices and goes on to uphold the dual New Orleans tradition of honoring the memory of the dead.

While the merging of Catholicism and hoodoo was only explored in moments of death during the first two poems analyzed, it can be seen in practice with regular life in the seventh section of the poem “Seven Sisters of New Orleans” which a Catholic prayer is inlaid with a hoodoo prayer.  The Hail Mary prayer is shown on the left side of the page, while a hoodoo chant interrupts the flow of the lines and lists down the right side of the page showing how the two can be distinguished but never fully separated in this culture.  The name of the woman worshipped may be different, Mary in the Catholic prayer and Érzulie in the hoodoo chant, but they are both said to be a “mother” in charge of the mortals in the city.  This woman based worship is one reason hoodoo and Catholicism are so compatible as Barbara Eckstein explains, “Not only mutually influential, Catholicism and voodoo together shaped other systems of belief and practices of faith.  One such religion is the woman-centered, largely African American Spiritual Churches of New Orleans” (176).

Catholicism and hoodoo are blended naturally in Osbey’s works.  In Violet Bryan’s book, The Myth of New Orleans in Literature, Osbey is quoted to have said to believe that hoodoo is influential in the way that one perceives life principles such as the attitudes towards life and death, not so much in the practice of the rites and rituals – which explains its ability to be paired with Catholicism (Bryan, 154).  In Osbey’s essay “Why We Can’t Talk To You About Voodoo,” she explains why she thinks the pairing of African hoodoo and Catholicism is not much of an issue for New Orleans culture.  While European-Americans and other white peoples believe that voodoo practices are some sort of magic and holy water and the Eucharist in Catholicism are not, she doesn’t differentiate between the two.  As Osbey says:

Because New Orleans Voodoo is not Yoruba based, it relies neither on the intercession of multiple lesser deities, nor requires that African deities be “masqued” in the guise of Catholic saints. New Orleans religion recognizes a somewhat distant but single deity. The few Catholic saints that have been absorbed into the religion function both in their own right and as the servants of the Ancestors. They form neither the core of our belief, nor the object of anything that might be called worship. Rather, they retain their unique identities and function primarily as servants and messengers of the Ancestors. It is the Ancestors who are the heart of the Religion and true focus of our attention because of their proximity to us (8).

Osbey believes that the merging of hoodoo and Catholicism is merely another aspect of the mixed culture and dozens of influences that make up New Orleans culture.  The poetry that she writes reflects this hybridity and attempts to put into words the culture that is misunderstood by many who are outsiders to the city .  For Osbey, Catholicism and hoodoo are just as easily mixed as the French and Spanish styles of cooking in the New Orleans cuisine.

Illustrations

Baquet, H. Brenda Marie Osbey. Digital image. Creative Loafing Atlanta. N.p., 26 Sept. 2007. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. <http://clatl.com/imager/brenda-marie-osbey/b/original/1269749/1de0/arts_culture3-1_21.jpg&gt;.

Works Cited

“Brenda Marie Osbey.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.

Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature: Dialogues of Race and Gender. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1993. Print.

Eckstein, Barbara J. Sustaining New Orleans: Literature, Local Memory, and the Fate of a City. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Osbey, Brenda M. “Why We Can’t Talk to You about Voodoo.” The Southern Literary Journal 43.2 (2011): 1-11. Project Muse. Web. 18 Apr. 2013.

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Anne Rice and her Supernatural New Orleans

By Allison Siegel

Anne Rice was born October 4, 1941, in the Irish Channel section of New Orleans, Louisiana.  She was the second of four daughters born to parents Howard and Katherine O’Brien, who originally gave her the name Howard Allen O’Brien, but she changed it to Anne in the first grade because she hated it so much (“Rice, Anne”).  Her interest in writing appears to be inherent because both of her parents pursued creative writing in their spare time when away from their actual jobs.  Rice described her childhood family dynamic as something like the Bronte sisters, everyone always telling each other stories and making up fantasy worlds.  Her mother often often told Anne ghost stories that related to the mysticism of New Orleans.  This sparked Rice’s obsession with the odd, leading her to an enjoyment of wandering around graveyards and watching horror movies as pastimes as a young girl.

Anne Rice

Author Anne Rice is best known for her series novels dealing with New Orleans and the supernatural, The Vampire Chronicles.

Although the family was eccentric, Rice was raised as a strict Catholic and attended Catholic school growing up.  The nuns at Holy Name of Jesus Elementary called her “unholy” because of her strange childhood interests (“Rice, Anne”).  Rice was persistent in her faith though and strived to become a saint after learning about them.  She even made a chapel out of an outhouse, hanging pictures of saints all over the walls and spending time there praying and reflecting as a young girl.  Her faith was first shaken though at the age of 14 when her mother died of alcoholism in 1956.  By the time she was 18 she no longer found a reason to believe in God or heaven (“Rice, Anne”).

After her mother died, her father, Howard O’Brien, decided that the family would pick up and leave for Richardson, Texas in Dallas County.  Anne lead a surprisingly normal life there – editing her high school newspaper, meeting her high school sweetheart and later husband, and leaving for university in 1959.  Rice attended multiple universities – Texas Woman’s University, San Francisco State College, and Berkeley – before she finally received her M.A. in creative writing at San Francisco State.  During her time in college, she married her high school sweetheart, Stan Rice, and they pursued literary careers together throughout their years at university.

In 1966 Anne and Stan had their first child – daughter Michelle.  Michelle was diagnosed with adult leukemia in 1970 and died in 1972.  It is when this happened that Rice turned to her writing and began her journey into the world of supernatural series stardom.  She had been trying to get back to her New Orleans roots while finishing at Berkeley and had started writing a story about a vampire named Louis living in 18th century New Orleans.  After the death of Michelle, Rice expanded on this story and started to make Louis’ character more human and pitiful without realizing at the time that she was putting her own feelings into the character.  When the addition of the character named Claudia – a young girl who is changed into a vampire so that she can have eternal life – Rice had subconsciously found a way to deal with her grief (“Rice, Anne”).  The booked was published under the title Interview with the Vampire in 1974 and had a large cult following by the early 1980s.

Rice received a lot of criticism on the novel for the way that it dealt with the themes, many critics claiming that they were trivialized next to the sexually racy content and the over the top supernaturalism.  Rice was highly embarrassed by these reviews and avoided the genre of supernaturalism for a long time after that (“Rice, Anne”).  She published many other works in the following years, the first of which were novels that dealt with New Orleans and race, and with socially outcast members of society.  Rice is notorious for sexually explicit topics.  She published many novels that can be considered erotica, but used the pen names of A. N. Roquelaure and Anne Rampling to save the reputation of her other works from the stigma attached to that kind of writing  (“Rice, Anne”).

Rice could never get away from her first major work, and the voice of the vampires in New Orleans.  Something about the haunting personal closeness that she felt drew her back to the characters of Louis and Lestat.  In 1985 she continued the series by publishing the novel The Vampire Lestat to show the more tragic side of the sadistic character from her first novel (“Anne Rice”).  By 1995 Rice had completed five novels to make up The Vampire Chronicles.  In 1994 the movie version of Interview with the Vampire was released, which Rice wrote the screenplay for and which starred Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Kirsten Dunst.

During this time period, Rice, her husband, and their son Chris moved back to the neighborhood that she grew up in in New Orleans.  Rice returned to the Catholic Church in 1998 after having some sort of epiphany and began writing religious novels.  She claims to still stay faithful to her supernatural fans although her newfound reconnection with religion causes strife between the beliefs in both.   Her husband Stan died in 2002 after an acute onset of brain cancer, and Rice decided to move out to the California desert area so that she could remain close to her son Chris who lived only a short way away in West Hollywood (“Anne’s Chamber”).  Rice still resides there today and continues to publish new novels.

Illustrations

Anne Rice. Widimedia Commons. Digital image. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Anne_Rice.jpg

Works Cited

“Anne’s Chamber: Biography.”  Annerice.com. Annerice.com. May, 2008. Web. 29 March 2013.

“Rice, Anne.” Current Biography (Bio Ref Bank) (1991): Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. 31 March 2013.

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Seclusion by Choice: A Mapping Analysis of The Moviegoer

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, Gentilly_Feb_2013_Nice_Houseand 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. 800px-Ship_Island_Sept_2004Further, 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 ffishing camprom 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.

 Illustrations

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

Work Cited

Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. [1961] New York: Vintage International, 1998. Print.

Posted in Mapping Analysis | 1 Comment

Binx Bolling’s Evasion of New Orleans in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

by Martha Ashe

First-edition copy of The Moviegoer

In his widely celebrated novel, The Moviegoer (1961), Walker Percy presents the intriguingly complex protagonist Binx Bolling in the week leading up to his thirtieth birthday on Ash Wednesday in New Orleans. Throughout this week of Mardi Gras, Binx is consumed by “the search,” which he describes as “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life” (13). So what is the search? It is Binx’s desperate pursuit for an escape out of the “everydayness” of his life in the attempt to discover his inner self. He is a loner and isolates himself from others, both emotionally, by rejecting friends, family, and lovers, and geographically, by moving to the suburbs of New Orleans. Such isolation only thickens the fog of malaise that settles over his mundane, uninspired existence that he likes to call his “Little Way.” And rather than embracing his search to find a way out of this haze, Binx consumes himself in the stasis of endless evasions and distractions that avoid confronting the entrenched depression that fuels it. While he is a perceptive individual in analyzing those around him, he is only partially cognizant of the major implications of his own behavior. Nevertheless, by the novel’s end he expresses a sense of confidence and direction that suggests he has come to a deeper understanding of self and has advanced in his search. Paralleling his psychological journey is a physical journey that takes him from living in the “nonplace” of Gentilly suburbia to the definitive place of New Orleans. Through this catalyst of place, Percy exemplifies and facilitates Binx’s personal growth in ultimately confronting, rather than evading, his conception of the search.

Garden District Home

Binx begins his narrative by telling the reader that for the past four years, he has “been living uneventfully in Gentilly, a middle class suburb of New Orleans” (6). Though he comes from a wealthy, upper class family and would be expected to live in one of the socially prominent sections of the city, he chooses to live in Gentilly instead because “one would never guess it was part of New Orleans” (6). He explains that his aversion toward the city is because he “can’t stand the old world atmosphere of the French Quarter or the genteel charm of the Garden District” (6). When he has tried in the past to live in the Garden District where his aunt and uncle live, he has found himself entering first into fits of rage and then of depression (6).

Garden District Home

Analyzing these comments in light of Percy’s discussion of place in his essay, “Why I Live Where I Live,” it is clear that Percy is basing Binx’s place of residence on his own in Covington, Louisiana. He describes Covington as the “perfect place for a writer” (7) because it “is in the Deep South, which is supposed to have a strong sense of pace,” but “occupies a kind of interstice in the South” (3). He calls it “a nonplace in a certain relation to a place,” that place being New Orleans, which he says “is very much of a place, drenched in its identity, its history, and its rather self-conscious exotica” (6). What he likes about Covington are “its nearness to New Orleans . . . and its own attractive lack of identity, lack of placeness, even lack of history” (6). In Covington, he says, “it is possible to live in both cultures without being suffocated by the one or seduced by the other,” the one being the South, and the other being New Orleans (9). He compares the seduction of New Orleans to a disease, “The occupational hazard of the writer in New Orleans is a variety of the French flu, which might also be called the Vieux Carré syndrome” (9). Binx may not technically be a writer, but like writers, he is a storyteller attempting to shape the story that is, and will emerge to become, his life. As he struggles to define himself, he must escape the “haunted” city of New Orleans, “escape the place of [his] origin and the ghosts of [his] ancestors but not too far” (Percy 3).

Gentilly Home

Though Binx moves to Gentilly to escape the “placeness” of New Orleans, he nevertheless falls into a predictable daily routine that is entirely defined by its “everydayness.” Much to his family’s disappointment, he works as a stockbroker. His aunt continually urges him to “make a contribution” (53) to the world and pursue what she believes is his “natural scientific curiosity” (51) by doing research or going to medical school. But Binx denies her expectations and dismisses any aspirations he may have once had, “But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o’clock like everyone else; having a girl and perhaps one day settling down and raising a flock of Marcias and Sandras and Lindas of my own” (9). He comically conveys his complacent, consumerist attitude through his unconsciously satirical comments on his petty life in Gentilly: “I am a model tenant and a model citizen and take pleasure in doing all that is expected of me. My wallet is full of identity cards, library cards, credit cards. . . . What satisfaction I take in appearing the first day to get my auto tag and brake sticker! I subscribe to Consumer Reports and as a consequence I own a first-class television set, an all but silent air conditioner and a very long lasting deodorant. My armpits never stink. I pay attention to all spot announcements on the radio about mental health, the seven signs of cancer, and safe driving—though, as I say, I usually prefer to ride the bus” (6-7).

Gentilly Home

After reading this, it is almost shocking when only a few pages later Binx says that his “peaceful existence in Gentilly has been complicated” by “the possibility of a search” (10). This is not the first time that “the search” has occurred to him. It first occurred years before when he was lying injured under a bush after being shot in the shoulder during the Korean War and watching a dung beetle crawling around: “As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search. Naturally, as soon as I recovered and got home, I forgot all about it” (11). When Binx is injured, he does not consider his condition, but rather contemplates a bug, the nature of life, and it is only during this near-death experience that he is able to transcend the self, to look beyond his condition and contemplate life, its potential, and all that he fails to see in his typical daily routine.

Now, Binx remembers his search again as he is getting dressed in the morning and putting his usual belongings—his wallet, notebook, pencil, keys, handkerchief, and pocket slide rule—into his pockets, and it is as though he sees them sitting on the bureau for the first time in thirty years: “What was unfamiliar about them was that I could see them. They might have belonged to someone else. A man can look at this little pile on his bureau for thirty years and never once see it” (11). Once he does see it, however, he reawakens to his search, but only half-heartedly. He explains that the search “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life,” and he then adds: “To be aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair” (13). Binx may be onto something—he may be able to peek his head out from under where he has sunk and see the potential for something more out of life—but that is all; the rest of his body remains submerged.

The consistent motif of movies throughout the novel highlights how Binx continually flirts with the idea of his search. Binx states: “The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place—but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead” (13). And that is just what Binx does—he screws it up repeatedly. He has moments where he starts to come to himself, but then settles down. As Linda Hobson explains, the plot of the novel “is a compendium of evasions Binx uses to avoid the issue of his own despair, the knowledge that the Little Way is no way at all” (31).  Another literary critic, Robert Coles, agrees, “The tension in the novel is the tension in Binx’s life, as he moves along on a search which at the same time he wants to undercut, or worse, size up all too exactly—and thereby thwart” (161). As for his evasions, Coles explains: “Binx certainly has fantasies. He is struggling throughout the novel to assume responsibility for them—turn them to some account in life, rather than run from them or flirt with them intermittently. He shuns personal possessions. He distrusts everyone, especially himself. He uses the streets of New Orleans, the homes he visits, his office, and of course the movie houses as endless sources of distraction” (157). And Coles further argues, “The nearer he comes to the most important step a person can make—decide to exercise freedom, make choices, and stand by them with commitment and intelligence, the more evasive he becomes” (161). Thus, Binx fails time and again to fully confront his search.

In Gentilly, Binx is as consumed by his malaise as the people he observes in the streets of New Orleans, the people who are not “onto something.” He defines the malaise as “the pain of loss”: “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” (120). He speaks of ways of “winning out over the malaise, if one has the sense to take advantage of it,” but he does not give the impression that he actually tries to take such advantage (120). Only pages later, when Binx is picking up Sharon from her apartment for their trip to the Gulf and sees her roommate Joyce standing in the window, he states, “If only I could be with both of them, with a house full of them, an old Esplanade rooming house full of strapping American girls with their silly turned heads and their fine big bottoms” (123). Binx immediately reverts to one of his most typical evasions—aiming, unsuccessfully, to fill the void in his life with meaningless relationships and lust.

Postcard View of Canal StreetWhat is particularly curious about Binx is his selective perceptiveness. Coles states that “his evasiveness if fueled by his perceptiveness” (161). Throughout Binx’s narrative, he constantly typifies the individuals he observes—acquaintances and strangers alike—into basic character stereotypes. He critiques the monotony and predictability of their daily lives, as though he can see through their superficiality, and yet queerly enough, usually fails to recognize his own. That said, there are fleeting moments when Binx seems to grasp his evasive behavior. A perfect example is toward the beginning of the novel when after running into Eddie Lovell on the street and listening to him ramble on about his life, Binx admits: “It comes over me: this is how one lives! My exile in Gentilly has been the worst kind of self-deception!” (18). It’s as if he realizes, but only for a brief instance, that his escape to Gentilly is a futile attempt at escaping his everydayness. He lives there “solitary and in wonder, wondering day and night, never a moment without wonder,” but never fully grasping (42).

Another such moment of self-recognition, but with a more conciliatory tone, is when he is driving homeward with Sharon from the Gulf and thinks, “It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh” (135-136). In his passing respite of happiness, Binx forgets his search and acknowledges that he is settling in life, but he fails to see how this settling is counterintuitive to the fundamental idea of his search. He implies that there is a difference between a “big search” and a little search, without apprehending that settling makes any search impossible.

The most striking, climactic moment of self-realization comes shortly after when he is at his family’s lake house and awakes in the middle of the night “in the grip of everydayness” (145). He seems to understand his counterproductive search and complains in his frustration and rage: “Everydayness is the enemy. No search is possible” (145). He throws himself off his cot, and lying on the wooden floor, continues defiantly: “Nevertheless I vow: I’m a son of a bitch if I’ll be defeated by the everydayness. (The everydayness is everywhere now, having begun in the cities and seeking out the remotest nooks and corners of the countryside, even the swamps.)” (145). He implies the everydayness exists in Gentilly, but without making the explicit connection. He then expresses that neither of his parents’ families understands his search and that he will not side with either of their perspectives on life, concluding, “The best I can do is lie rigid as a stick under the cot, locked in a death grip with everydayness, sworn not to move a muscle until I advance another inch in my search” (146). This moment vividly expresses Binx’s entrenched desperation. But what is most significant is that though Binx realizes he is caught in everydayness, he does so passively; he does not take responsibility for it. He seems to blame the phenomenon of everydayness itself rather than admitting to his active role in it.

Postcard of Mardi Gras on Canal StreetA major turning point for Binx toward taking a true step forward in his search is when he travels to Chicago with Kate. There, he can reflect on New Orleans from a healthy distance. Initially, he is unhappy about being asked to travel for his work, complaining: “Oh sons of all bitches and great beast of Chicago lying in wait. There goes my life in Gentilly, my Little Way, my secret existence among the happy shades in Elysian Fields” (99). Once there, he says his misgivings were right and grumbles over the “genie-soul of Chicago perched on [his] shoulder” (203). This “genie-soul” is the very “placeness” discussed above, which he says “you must meet and master first thing or be met and mastered” (202). And though both New Orleans and Chicago have their own “genie-souls,” Binx realizes that he prefers that of his home city: “The Lake in New Orleans is a back-water glimmering away in a pleasant lowland. Not here. Here the Lake is the North itself: a perilous place from which the spirit winds come pouring forth all roused up and crying out alarm” (203). Binx seems to come to an understanding that though the “genie-soul” exists in both places, he feels a certain affinity toward New Orleans. He sees the dreaded spirit of his city that makes it such a distinctive place in a positive light, and suddenly his original home becomes more inviting and appealing. At the same time, there is the latent realization that the threat of everydayness pervades all places, and so he discovers new cause to embrace his search in the New Orleans that he can now appreciate. And most significantly, in Chicago, away from New Orleans, Binx states: “There I see [Kate] plain; see plain for the first time since I lay wounded in a ditch and watched an Oriental finch scratching around in the leaves . . . I never noticed how shrewd and parsimonious she is—a true Creole” (206). In this momentous transition, Binx finally takes ownership of his place—New Orleans, and finally appreciates his family and heritage.

In this way, Binx returns to New Orleans on Mardi Gras, his thirtieth birthday, where he receives a severe, culminating lecture from his aunt critiquing his overt disregard for his family’s high stature and refusal to fulfill his obligations as a privileged member of the upper class (219-227). Binx leaves depressed, unsure what to do with his life, but then finds hope in confirming his marriage to Kate just as the story of his last week before entering into adulthood comes to a close. The novel then jumps a year into the future in the Epilogue, depicting a very different and markedly improved Binx Bolling. He is married, attending medical school, and living in what can be assumed to be the Garden District. And as for his search, he concludes, “I have not the inclination to say much on the subject” (237). It would appear that on the surface, Binx has ostensibly fallen into a life of everydayness and given up on his search. But the tone of his voice has shifted. He sounds confident. He may be living the life that was expected of him, but he is living it on his own terms and because he consciously chose it for himself after much deep contemplation. The care and guidance he shows for his siblings and for Kate suggests that he has matured and grown to be less self-absorbed. Hobson writes that he “comes full circle: from the hint of a search, through avoiding its radical implications, to leaping to embrace the search in all its difficult manifestations” (44). The search is by no means over; Binx will never escape his intrinsic nature. But he has confronted his search, accepted it, made a decision, and moved forward with Kate as a partner. As Coles clearly explains: “Their vulnerability will be one of the hazards they have knowingly assumed on the different and still quite hazardous road they are traveling, its destination, one suspects, not clear to either of them. They only know for sure where they were traveling, and want no longer to be found there” (172). Binx has thus grown substantially, embracing his search rather than evading it, moving forward with his partner into the unknown, but forward nonetheless.

Illustrations

1. Picture of the 1961 first edition dust jacket for The Moviegoer, National Book Award First Edition Collecting Guide, http://www.nbaward.com/book-details.php/The-Moviegoer

2. Garden District Gate and Balconies, 2008, By pwbaker (originally posted to Flickr as 330-74) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGarden_Distirict_Gate_and_Balconies.jpg

3. Lower Garden District, New Orleans, 19th century house with iron fence, 2007, Photo by Infrogmation, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_Orleans_2521_Prytania_Street.jpg

4. Gentilly St. Roch House, 2007, By Karen Apricot (Flickr: St.Roch) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGentilly_St.Roch_House.jpg

5. Gentilly Feb 2013 Nice House, By Infrogmation of New Orleans (Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGentilly_Feb_2013_Nice_House.JPG

6. Joy Theater (New Orleans) Grand Opening 1947, The Times-Picayune Archives, Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joy_Theater_(New_Orleans)_Grand_Opening_1947.jpg

7. Postcard View of Canal Street Looking East [showing marquees for Saenger and Loew’s theaters], c. 1940’s, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACanalStLookEastSaengerLoews.jpg

8. Postcard Mardi Gras Crowds on Canal Street [showing Tudor Theater], c. late 1910’s early 1920’s, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MardiGrasCanalStreetTudorTheater.jpg

Works Cited

Coles, Robert. Walker Percy: An American Search. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978. Print.

Hobson, Linda Whitney. Understanding Walker Percy. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1988. Print.

Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. [1961] New York: Vintage International, 1998. Print.

Percy, Walker. “Why I Live Where I Live.” Ed. Patrick H. Samway. Signposts in a Strange Land. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991. 3-9. Print.

Posted in Literary Analysis | 3 Comments