I’ve been meaning to read this for decades (literally) – since I read The Second Coming many years ago and very much enjoyed it. Well, one of my reading groups recently chose it for a discussion and here I am.
Binx Boiling, our first-person protagonist lives in New Orleans where he works as a stock and bond broker, goes to the movies wth his secretaries, plays golf, watches TV and otherwise enjoys life in the late 1950s. He’s twenty-nine. The book is very true to it’s times and setting – that’s a point with a certain group of writers of this era.
by Walker Percy
1961- 254 pages
read by Christopher Hurt 6h 35m
rating: 10 / classic US
(read and listened)
The story opens with the almost 30-year old and still single Binx Bolling leaving his apartment with map and book in hand walking to a movie theater. This is about a week or so before Mardi Gras, 1959 or so.
We find out he was in the Korean war and that he got wounded in the shoulder. He came to under a “chindolea bush” – a Korean plant. Binx realizes he wants to go on a “search” for something – what he promised himself he’d do when he found himself under the bush in Korea.
He does not like cars or driving – he feels invisible. (But he has a red MG.)
There is a wire schematic sort of bird – the Holy Ghost? Gives Binx a pleasant sense of goodness of creation … from common dirt … Alcoa.
William Holden might be at Place d’Armes – (possibly for “The Horse Soldiers”?) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Horse_Soldiers
“Place d’Armes” – now Jackson Square in the Old Quarter.
Some background on Binx’s family.
He spots William Holden and thinks about that. So much more real than the average person on the street. On the way he talks to a friend and ponders life and such what on Bourbon Street.
2. – Mercer the Negro butler (or famiy retainer in Emiy”s eyes) is introduced. Binx visits his Aunt Emily and finds that something is wrong with his cousin Kate – she’s getting married and is very nervous because of the prior engagement.
(Bringing ideas of how Southerners thought they could maintain the old agrarian, slave-holding ways into the mid-20th century even without slaves – even in urban areas like New Orleans – “old families” “old money,” and old professions like medicine.
3. Uncle Jules, Emily’s husband, her Cato, is introduced – the old Southern gentleman – knowledgeable and all – but lives in the past. Walter is a good guy – rich enough and popular, but not from the old family Binx is from. They went to college together and the same fraternity. Binx never did care.
4. – background on Binx’s life – the family. Kate and Binx talk- Binx apparently thinks that he and Kate belong together on some level.
5. – Binx’ background in college and in learning. He seems to be as happy doing what he’s doing as he will be at anything. But Aunt Emily wants him to go into medical school. That way he can keep an eye on Kate. Binx accepts although he remembers he wants to be on some kind of “search.”
6. – Kate refuses to go to dance with ether Walter or Binx and stays home.
7. – Kate is not going to marry Walter either. She doesn’t want to go anywhere – she seems to want to be a little boy. Ku Klux Klan is in parade. Binx wants to see “Panic in the Streets” (Widmark) filmed in NO so Kate calls it “certified.” – because that means reality is affirmed for the viewer who lives there.
She is trapping herself, this time by being my buddy, best of all buddies and most privy to my little researches. In spite of everything she finds herself, even now, playing out the role. In her long nightmare, this our old friendship now itself falls victim to the grisly transmogrification by which she unfailingly turns everything she touches to horror. (p. 63 – Kindle)
1 – smell of something (but he just saw Panic in the Streets) – new secretary Sharon is lovely Southern girl, but reads Peyton Place which is not appropriate according to Blix. Speaks with Kate and Emily – Kate to see doctor. She’ll go to the annual supper for queens of the Neptune Ball – but she hasn’t changed. She broke up with Walter but he’s still around.
Binx reads and hides a book called Arabia Deserta. This is after years of reading “fundamental books” as part of his “search” and taking walks as diversion, he now takes walks as a part of the “search” and reads for diversion. He goes to movies like “It Happened One Night.”
*Feliciana style of talking” – from the Feliciana Parish in northern Louisiana – “analytic style of talking” (Kate and Blix use rule bound and formal language while Emily uses a “down home” kind of language?)
(The Chemistry of Life, which Blix says he read, was first published in 1966 – there must have been a prior version or book with that name.)
2. More Arabia Deserta, banks and making money. Security and ambition. Ned Daigle sells papers – used to be a jockey. Racing season. Movie goers – Jane Powell – not interested. “There go Jane and some fellow walking arm in arm down the street in a high wide and handsome style and doing a wake up and sing number.” – He’s drifting off into movie-dom. But he wants to his world and the world of the movie to be connected so he talks to the manager or the ticket seller. Dick Powell in a play on television.
3. A bit of Binx’s movie history. Kate and Binx go out – take the streetcar and then walk around campus. Nothing changed. Experiment in repetition.
“What is a repetition? A repetition is the re-enactment 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.” (pp. 79-80 Kindle)
Kate had seen Merle Mink who approved her breaking the engagement with Walter. People are more real and solid in times of illness or disaster. Plucks at thumb, it bleeds.
5 – Binx gets a letter from Harold Graebner asking him to be Godfather to his daughter.
6. Jews – “I am Jewish by instinct” – (a Percy theme) – recognizes Jews because he is on a search.
7 – Sharon likes Binx’s MG. They go to see Saralamaccia and make a deal about the land. He likes to make money. Sharon and Binx in car – Sharon refuses money. Binx thinks about her knee, legs, and the Coke drop on them.
8. Jules convinces Binx to go to Chicago during Mardi Gras – it’s the convention and he can make contacts Jules will be at the Boston Club – of course. Binx hates the idea of being alone in a strange city. He’s a New Orleans person – not a believer, not political, not much of anything but he belongs to New Orleans.
9. Binx is getting more and more discouraged about people – he thinks they’re dead.
Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upside-down: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive. (p. 100 – Kindle)
He runs into his cousin Nell at the library and she is newly retired with a new lease on life as is her husband, Eddie. Binx is not amused or enlightened. He thinks of her as being dead. (Is he looking for immortality?) Niceties amount to death?
10. Binx loves Sharon and wants to enhance his wealth – he will make money and love at the same time.
“Enlist money in the service of love and love in the service of money. As long as I am getting rich, I feel that all is well. It is my Presbyterian blood.” (p. 102 Kindle)
11. He watches TV show instead of going to the movies and then listens to a radio show “This I Believe.” And he thinks about hypocrites and people like his aunt and others who say they believe these shallow “feel good” things.
12. Kate is missing per phone call from Aunt Emily. She left the pre-Carnival “queens” party and never showed up anywhere. Sam called with news. Kate takes a taxi to Binx. She’s had a “revelation” and when that happens she gets very excited but it’s “followed by spells of blackest depression.” But right now she feels free and exuberant. Binx kind of sort of asks Kate to marry him. By the end of the chapter she’s afraid and Blix is comforting her. “Everything will be all right.” (bi-polar?)
1. Binx and Sharon at work – she’s a bit snippy and he’s coming on to her. They go for a drive to the gulf for the afternoon. But … “Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.” All this is apparently just like Linda (snippy) and Marcia (car). Binx analyzes happiness vs malaise and remembers the past.
And it may be no accident that Binx lives and travels down Elysian Fields as that is a road featured in Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire – (1948) It’s also a final resting place of the heroic gods in Greek Mythology. It’s also, quite simply, a street in New Orleans and runs close to Gentilly Blvd.
They have a wreck with an old green truck driven by an odd couple with Ohio plates – obviously “commoners.” The Negro watering a lawn gapes but recovers. Binx and Sharon are to be observed now – “We are restored to the anonymity of our little car-space. (like in a movie?).
Binx is seriously detached from life although he does see that Sharon is all right and observes the people who hit him. His bad shoulder is bumped. And then he might have passed out but …
Love is invincible. True for a second or so the pain carried me beyond all considerations, even that of love, but for no more than a second. Already it has been put to work and is performing yeoman service, a lovely checker in a lovely game.” (p 125)
Chongchon River is in North Korea Tony Curtis. Rory
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.
They get to the beach and swim – he makes a huge pass at her and she rebuffs him – offers to fight. He tries to give her some of the money he made that afternoon and she refuses.
He realizes that emotions pass and repeat – joy and sadness and beauty and bravery.
They go to his mother’s house – the Smiths.
2. Binx has half-brothers and sisters – they’re eating – Jean-Paul, Thérèse, Mathilde, Clare, Donice. Duval (the eldest is not there as he drowned) and Lonnie, the ailing but serene “believer,”
“…he can offer his sufferings in reparation for men’s indifference to the pierced heart of Jesus Christ.” (p. 137)
** so Binx wouldn’t mind trading places.
They are Catholic with Sunday dinners and a Sacred Heart above the mantel. Very family oriented even without Dad/Roy Smith (who is playing poker). Mom feeds Binx and Sharon. Lonnie has been very ill, asked for “extreme unction.” Lonnie is very religious.
The whole bunch go to the drive-in movie to see Fort Dobbs with Clint Walker – Lonnie loves it and Sharon likes Blix even better. – He muses on getting some sex.
He thinks about rotations – good ones – “experiencing something new beyond the expectation of he experiencing of the new.” – movies within movies.
3. Night – sleeping – dreams -years like ghosts – memories – war – his place in the house is used up by rotation and repetitive use. Waking is in the grip of everydayness – the enemy.
“Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch.” – (p. 144)
( a little PTSD? -)
His mother’s family thinks he’s lost his religion but he never had any. His father’s family thinks “the world makes sense without without God and an idiot knows what the good life is and anyone but a scoundrel can lead it.”
Binx just doesn’t know. He’s rigid in a death grip fighting “everydayness” and he must advance on his search. The starting point is one’s own apathy. The only sign is that all the signs make no difference.
4. Roy and the fishermen get the boat started and leave. Binx notices sounds and sights of nature. Mom goes fishing with a rod.
“her sure instinct for the ordinary.” Binx doesn’t like to fish – he’s like his father.
Little Bayou Sara – just a photo of what Binx is seeing and remembering —->
It’s a very sensual novel – smells, sounds, textures all on display in this section.
Binx’s father was a surgeon and a walker but not a fisherman. Binx’s mother loves the everyday but doesn’t put too much importance on anything – very content to be ordinary – perhaps she’s been wounded too many times. – (p. 142)
Dad stayed sick in part because he wouldn’t eat – “It was like he thought eating was not – important enough. You see, with your father, everything, every second had to be -” “He was overwrought.”
Mom doesn’t understand dad’s family but Binx –
“I became accustomed to sitting on the porch in the dark and talking of the size of the universe and the treachery of men; as a Smith on the Gulf Coast I have become accustomed to eating crabs and drinking beer under a hundred and fifty watt bulb—and one is as pleasant a way as the other of passing a summer night.” (p 153)
Mom is okay with Sharon but tells Binx he should marry Kate. The war was important and it got Dad to eating because he knew what was happening and went off to fight as a flight surgeon. Died in Crete.
Binx tells Mom part of the story of his war experience – how it made him indifferent to everything. She tells him he’s be good at cancer research because of part of the story.
5. They all go to Mass – but it’s all “blank-eyed vacancy and the priest has turned his back.” Lonnie’s eyes “light as an eagle’s.”
6. Mom and Sharon fix dinner – the kids and Roy are skiing on the bayou – Lonnie and Binx talk – about Lonnie’s eating, Lonnie uses the “peculiar idiom of the catechism in ordinary speech.” (p. 162) He envies Duval, his dead brother. He has confessed – Binx tells him that it wold be better to concentrate on the Eucharist – more positive – it’s a sacrament of the living.
******* Is this the statement of when Binx changes? ******* –
Lonnie and Binx have a routine – a religious talk, a fierce ride and then Binx beats up on Lonnie. – like Akim Tamiroff (an actor)
7. The MG has malaise – Binx makes a pass at Sharon but she bats him away with her usual, “Son, don’t you mess with me.” And then she has to meet someone.
Per Sharon – calling Binx, “Son,” I suppose it’s a common way for people (women) to keep a man in his place.
1. Sam Yerger – (bigger than life) – on the porch – related to Binx by marriage – older, a writer, exotic kind of, married to Joel, lived in Mexico, etc. Calls Blix “Brother Andy” and Kate “Miss Ruby.”
Sam wants Kate to go to New York to see Etienne Suë and stay with “the Princess” an aging U.N. diplomat? – who needs a companion and Kate is perfect. –
Kate has had a flip-flop and taken too many pentobarbitol (bad stuff).
Uncle Oscar and Aunt Emma (a native Yankee) are visiting and Kate has to be escorted out – They are quite well off and have a place for show on the Azalea trail.
** Interesting little section – Binx and Kate discuss her bad night up in the mezzanine room where they can see the dining room below and Sam and company talking. Emily is advanced in thinking (except about Catholics – ) while Uncle Oscar is a bigot. Uncle Jules’ “armor is his unseriousness.” Meanwhile Kate is telling Binx how happy she was – and Aunt Edna tries to intercept Sam’s monologue. Binx is not fond of Aunt Edna. Kate says something about Sam –
Binx has go to Chicago in the morning on business. Kate explains about waking and wondering about proposal – if she had botched it all – maybe they could.
Binx is listening to both Kate and Oscar and watching Mercer serve below them. Edna is concerned Sam will report this “Southern” commentary and hushes him.
Kate couldn’t sleep – Kate reveals a bit of her past. Sam is chattering away. Kate is not paying attention- she’s telling the story of taking the nembutals. She didn’t want to die – she just felt queer and that nothing mattered.
Kate says she’s going to Chicago with Binx. She takes charge. They’re going by train. Sam gives Binx a bottle of Kate’s medications.
Then they’re on the train and it’s different and Kate has makeup on and Binx refuses. They run into a friend of Binx – a Jewish man and wife – she’s nice but looks askance at Kate and they play cards. Kate wants pills, goes to room and takes off make-up due to woman. She’s better whether it’s from getting rid of the Grosses or from the “secret promise of the chemicals.”
Binx getting drowsy. Guy getting off at St. Louis looks lie Gary Merrill – certified permission. Dream or wake – neither – blend. Dreams about authors of marriage book. St. Louis guy is well organized. Binx’s life “has gone to seed” – eating, sleeping, writing notes, dirty fingernails. Now he’s howling emotionally – despair.
Kate leaves for her room – Binx follows later – She’s okay – “never too bad with you.” because he’s not as sympathetic. He’s nuttier than she is. Marriage? Sam, too – proposed. Binx is nuttier than Sam the schemer, knows Kate is rich, and ikes her.
Marriage talk – “Then why not do it?” – (Camus?)
Kate has an inspiration – she needs to be told what to do. They go to the room and he makes a kind of pass and she tells him “None of that, bucko.”
Binx talks to “Rory” about how he and Kate did not do it.
They get to Chicago and Kate takes charge. It’s all about memories and a genie-soul. Ghosts and wind. They go out to see Binx’s friend from the war,
3 Memories of father and brother (both dead) and go to the convention. Joking and saying he’ll do a speech. Binx has to find Harold – his old friend. They go find him and his wife but the memories are too much. He was supposed to be godfather. Harold had saved him. “Rory” is more real. (p 207) – Paul Newman and Audie Murphy
They get to the hotel and there is a note to call home – no one told anyone they were going to Chicago.
4. They take the bus back to New Orleans. Fat Tuesday. A guy on the train reading Charterhouse of Parma, a romantic. Then a salesman – very outgoing.
Canal Street is dark and the parades have gone.
Chapter 5 –
1.Emily is mad. They apologize. “Were you intimate?” Binx gets off thinking about words and meanings and class and poliltics – “Ours is the only civilization in ihstory which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal.” (p 223) Emily goes on and on about modern evils of society.
And a black chimneysweep appears and disappears during this scene.
He leaves, meets Kate – Binx’s 30th birthday. Malaise has returned big time – he can only “fall prey to desire.” He waits and finally leaves – wants a woman – Sharon / Joyce phone calls. Kate arrives –
Binx realizes he wants Kate and Emily and Sam and others to survive.
Ash Wednesday – all are at Mass.
Sitting in Kate’s car talking – Kate told Emily they were to be married. Binx will talk to Emily. His job is still to listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, etc. Only whether to do this at a service station or …
Medical school – now? Kate has plenty of money. They watch a Negro with a red car and dressed / acting very respectable. Kate says she’s scared of almost everything. She will be under treatment for a long time. Might never really change. He promises to be kind to her. Now she’s plucking at her thumb hard. (Nerves throughout book.) She’ll try not to hurt herself so much.
The Negro comes out – he’s like a businessman – with a sample case – coming up in the world – God is here at the corner? Both reasons?
Married, Sharon does office, Mr S. buys duck land. Binx starts medical school. Binx and Kate move near Emily. Emily is okay with Binx. Jules heart attack and dies. Lonnie dies.
Binx is a member of his mother’s family and shies away from talking of religion.
Kate visits Lonnie in infirmary – he’s very sick. She wasn’t prepared. Yellow with hepatitis – dying. Binx and Kate talk to the other kids – sad.
Fear of war – dock is safer. Kate goes to fetch things by streetcar – Binx gives her directions – He assures her he’ll be thinking of her.
Binx – almost 30 years old and rather rootless – father deceased, mother moved and remarried and has other children – sells stocks and bonds although he has an education – He enjoys making money and is ambitious to an extent.
Kate – Binx’ cousin – lives with her father Jules and second wife Emily -the death of her fiancé some years prior has sent her into a seemingly permanent depression. She’s now engaged to Walter but is not committed. She’s probably PTSD or bi-polar or something in today’s language.
Emily – Binx aunt and Kate’s step-mother – Emily is determined to fix both Binx and Kate
Jules – Kate’s father – old Southern gentleman
Walter – Kate’s fiancé – materialistic, loves Kate, happy-go-lucky.
Sharon Kincaid – Binx’s current secretary – she’s good.
Mr Sartalamacciaa – potential buyer for property – Binx owns it.
Mrs Schexnaydre – Binx’s landlady – owns three dogs who hate Negroes.
Lonnie – Binx’s step-brother who is very ill, in a wheelchair.
Merle Mink – Kate’s doctor –
Harold Graebner – Binx’s friend – correspond- Harold saved Binx’s life in the Orient.
Nell Lovell – Binx’s cousin and her husband
Lots of smells –
(“Percy intended the epilogue to be a tribute to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Though it concludes with the death of Binx’s young brother, Percy emphasizes the resurrection.
Also, Holly Golightly can be seen as a female version of Binx Bolling in that she is rootless, wanders from man to man searching for something.
Google Books – “Uncontained: Urban Fiction in Postwar America” By Elizabeth A. Wheeler http://tinyurl.com/yac5jk85
Re the ending after the ending – John Gregory Brown’s Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, from 1994 – see the ending of this review: