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A thought on Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer at 50 October 16, 2011

Posted by The Typist in books, New Orleans, NOLA, novel, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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No I didn’t make the conference. My request for a press pass went unanswered and I did not fail to attend out of pique but because I had enough else to do that I had to make choices (the wonderful Midsummer Night’s Dream over the keynote, too many chores to ignore Saturday). If anyone who attended wants to submit a write up of say 1500 words, please do. I would be glad to have it.

I am posting this because Micheal Zell of Crescent City Books rises to champion John Kennedy Toole in the comments on the last Odd Words and now I a tempted to spoil my Sunday’s other plans by diving back into both books to make my point, a task that would keep me up well past midnight if I started now.

In short the question is: did Walker Percy champion Toole’s novel because he saw in it a brilliant parody of his own The Moviegoer and was flattered? It just came to my in a flash this morning but the parallels between Rielly and Binx are just to close and cute to dismiss. Hell, I wish this had come to me for some other reason six months ago, or I might have submitted a paper to the conference. If I do end up returning to U.N.O. to try to finish my degree, it would make an excellent thesis topic.

Don’t comment here. Wander back to the original post’s comments if you have some thoughts on the matter rather than post them here.

Also, in writing my response I stumbled across Bookslut’s excellent review and the original New York Times’ review. Whether your decompressing from the conference over coffee or missed it as I did, consider this some timely and apt Sunday morning reading.

Bookslut predictably takes up the issue of Percy’s depiction of race and the sexes in the mid-century South, which I wonder is a barrier to the young, modern reader (except perhaps a thesis exercise in deconstructing the work according to the latest quasi-Marxist pedagogy). At my age, I forgive him his trespasses and we tolerate elderly relatives, and recognize that the man was writing about his millieu, not defending it. Perhaps modern graduates in Me Studies have addressed this issue and dismissed it as Dead White Male sophistry but to do so is to misunderstand fundamentally how literature works.

So: go look at my potential new house to rent, clean up this place and do some laundry while watching the game or dive into the Moviegoer? I think you know my inclination.

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The Moviegoer at Fifty March 26, 2011

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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More telegraphic notes from the Tennessee Williams Festival. I’ve brought the laptop today but I don’t have much time between panels so these are almost in the form of notes. -mf

It was interesting that a work of fiction that seems to fall into the category of books from a strongly male perspective (think of Richard Ford as another example), a group a friend and I have decided needs a name and it rhymes with “chic lit”, was represented by four women, the moderator and panelists. While Shelia Bosworth, Valerie Martin, Chris Wiltz and moderator Mary McCoy from the Walker Percy Center at Loyola discussed Bink’s fascination for women with large hips and derrieres, they also said that Percy loved the company of women. All three novelists were frequent guests of Percy’s literary luncheons. “He was “on” to women,” Bosworth said, quoting a Percy remarks that [women] are just better than we are.”

It’s hard not to talk about the character Binx Bolling’s relationship to the many women in the National Book Award-winning novel, but the panel focused a great deal on the philosophical nature of Percy’s work. The Moviegoer is ultimately about “the inadvertent hopefulness of the awareness of despair,” Bosworth said. Walker wanted to write philosophy but thought he would never get a publisher. We heard a fair bit about Soren Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism in the panel and how it plays into Binx’s endless search for meaning in a world he was deeply alienated from, about how Binx tries to come to terms with the world.

The panel wasn’t all about angst. They spoke of the humor in the book which is at times a comedy of manners of the South and New Orleans just before the era of Civil Rights, the character Sharon’s remark that she “didn’t know people ate crawfish” meaning to a woman of that time from Alabama not knowing that white people ate crawfish. One panelist told the story of how Alfred Knopf was a close friend of Percy’s uncle, and the uncle sent the manuscript to Knopf with instructions to “publish it”. Knopf could bring himself to say no but hated the book, and instructed the warehouse not to fill any orders for it. After the novel won the National Book Award it was almost impossible to find in a store because no orders had been filled for it.

It was more than a comedy of manners, Martin suggested. It was also a careful portrait of class and race of the same period, the characters very conscious of their place in a stratified society. The novel is in part, she asserted, about Binx’s attempt to escape that world, moving from his aunt’s home Uptown into the facelessness of Gentilly where Binx lives, perhaps the least romantic setting one could select in New Orleans.

Wiltz spoke about the characters fascination with the manufactured physical rather than the natural world, things planted in space but moving through time, his reflections on the piers along the Gulf Coast, the seats in his movie theaters. “He tends to attach a lot of importance to manufactured things, ” Wiltz said. “He’s not too crazy about the naturla world. He’s the modern man who would rather watch the world on a screen/”

The panel discussed the idea that movies are an analog for religion for the a religious Binks and allowed Percy to bring in ideas of religion, an important subject for a man who converted to Catholicism in 1947 and was as much a Catholic existentialist as Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich. Binks “loved movies with happy endings. It allowed for the posibility of imagination” but the group suggested the script as analog for scripture, the invisible director in the place of God.

I’d Rather Stay Here With All The Madmen January 21, 2011

Posted by The Typist in 504, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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Almost everyone thinks of Confederacy of Dunces as The Great New Orleans book. When my daughter started Loyola this year, every entering student was handed a copy. I love the book as much as anyone else, but I think to raise it up on a pedestal like that ignores the fact that, while the city has fared poorly on film before Treme (and I have routine arguments with people even over that), it has produced a great many books that actually capture the sense of it, what Walker called in the Moviegoer “the genie soul of…place“.

Attorney, blogger and author Billy Sothern muses a bit on Walker Percy’s Lancelot, which owns its place in the canon for the character’s reflections while confined to a mental institution on the character of the city. Here is a fitting excerpt as we start to think of Carnival seasons.

What is it I can smell, even from here, as if the city has a soul and the soul exhaled an effluvium all its own? I can’t quite name it. A certain vital decay? A lively fetor? When I think of New Orleans away from New Orleans, I think of rotting fish on the sidewalk and good times inside. A Catholic city in a sense, but that’s not it. Providence, Rhode Island, is a Catholic city, but my God who would want to live in Providence, Rhode Island? It’s not it, your religion, that informs this city, but rather some special local accommodation to it or relaxation from it. The city’s soul I think of as neither damned nor saved but eased rather, existing in a kind of comfortable Catholic limbo somewhere between the outer circle of hell, where sexual sinners don’t have it all that bad, and the inner circle of purgatory, where things are even better. Add to that a flavor of Marseilles vice leavened by Southern U.S.A. good nature. Death and sex treated unseriously and money seriously. The Whitney Bank is as solemn as the cemetery is lively. Protestants started Mardi Gras, you know. Presbyterians take siestas or play gin at the Boston Club. Jews ride on carnival floats celebrating the onset of Christ’s forty-day fast.

If you don’t follow his blog, you really should. Check out Character and Fitness from last Tuesday.

The Little Way October 26, 2009

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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The peculiar virtue of New Orleans, like St. Theresa, may be that of the Little Way, a talent for everyday life rather than the heroic deed.”
— Walker Percy

This quote from a 1968 Harper’s Magazine article by noted local author Walker Perc7y is one that New Orleans writers keep coming back to. I last saw it in the book of essays My New Orleans edited by Rosemary James, and it just popped up again in a Conde’ Nast Traveler article on bars of New Orleans. Reading it again today tied together any number of things that have popped up in the newspapers and online in the last few days.

The first trigger and the fulcrum of this post was a column by an old colleague from West (not Wet) Bank Guide days Dennis Persica on living with Jack O’Lantern development in his Vista Park neighborhood, the same part of town where Tim of Tim’s Nameless Blog once lived, and was defeated trying to rebuild an elevated house on the site of his pre-flood home.

Jack O’Lantern development is not a nod to the season but the name some wit came up with the describe the problem of some people coming home and rebuilding while other around them did not. I think the general idea is that houses along a street would look like the intermittent teeth of your typical Halloween pumpkin. Fair enough. You have to describe it somehow. In many badly damaged places like Vista Park that is precisely what has happened. There were attempts to stop it, but most of them were bungled through political ineptitude.

In the early days after the flood, a panel put together by Mayor Ray Nagin called the Bring New Orleans Back committee spearheaded a first draft recovery plan that suggested condemning entire neighborhoods that were particularly flood prone to concentrate population is more sustainable areas. The first maps that came out put big green dots over areas devastated communities like Broadmoor, Gentilly Woods and the Ninth Ward. Many of these neighborhoods were also full of the working class poor who could afford to live no where else; no one suggested converting the low lying and upper middle class Lakeview to park space. (Except maybe me, who also once suggested that the city retreat behind the Industrial Canal and focus on saving its core. But that was a long time ago. No one listened to me then and reminding people of this will probably just piss them off again now. But I still think I was right).

The BNOB plan was roundly (and rightly) rejected by outraged citizens, helped in fact to spawn a wave of civic engagement and resident led planning. The Broadmoor Civic Association became the model for a self-organized recovery long before it was apparent that government was going to botch the job as badly as it has done. In every neighborhood including my own citizen planning groups sprung up or got themselves reorganized with new residents and members and began the Lambert planning process. I was myself housing chair of the Mid-City Recovery Planning Group (I think we finally called it, to keep it separate from the established neighborhood group).

This was all assembled under something called The Lambert Plan, the most democratic of the long alphabet soup of plans for the future of New Orleans. The Lambert Plan was then subsumed into the Unified New Orleans Plan, which attempted to squish the wishes of the residents into boxes carefully constructed by their political minders, including the state’s Louisiana Recovery Authority which was charged with signing off on the disbursement of recovery funds to the satisfaction of FEMA and Congress.

And now we are confronted with the latest challenge, the New Orleans Master Plan, which will attempt to cobble together from the long string of post-flood plans an over-arching plan that will guide all future zoning and development decision. I don’t know whether to yawn or scream.

Are you bored to tears yet? Are you still here? I’m amazed. If you visit this blog you probably know most of this at least in outline, and you know I don’t write about crap this like anymore like I used to on my old Wet Bank Guide blog. I don’t write about it because it is painful to think about. It is painful not because of its complexity, but because for one bright shinning moment in 2006 we all believed that the citizens would band together and build a better New Orleans, a utopia of level streets and buses than run on schedule.

Watching the unfolding of everything that came after uprising against BNOB, all the subsequent plans that tried to quash down the citizen drafted version, and my own planning fatigue reminds me for some reason of the scene at the end of the film 1900 when the U.S. Army asks the Italian Communist partisans to give up their weapons. I almost got tossed out of the Prytania Theatre once in my young, radical days for hollering at the screen, “don’t do it. Don’t let them take them!”

In the end planning fatigue finally overwhelmed all but the most resolute of warriors and the rest of us went home. Reading about the new Master Plan in the paper is like running into your ex-wife. Everyone is trying to be charming but either it had best be over quickly or it might get ugly. I voted against the master plan because we were asked to vote for the idea of a plan, that would have the force of law, before it was written.

Requiring us to vote to give the plan force of law was supposed to keep things in the hands of the Professional sand protect us from Corrupt Political Influences, but I am afraid in the end it will allow those precise and persistent influences, the people who over a cup of coffee and a handshake have managed to make zoning in the city near meaningless, to triumph over the weary populace.

After following this depressing train of thought all day, stopping to Google up a chronology of it all so I would not mangle my acronyms, the Percy quote landed in my lap to save me from despair. What happened to all of the energy and idealism of 2006 is this: it was swallowed by the city itself and put to other uses. In the end we spent our time patronizing re-opened restaurants and bars, reviving our carnival krewes and going out to second lines. We didn’t give up entirely on our civic duties, but our own Mid-City group turned inward and focused on the immediate and local concerns of the neighborhood. Rather than worry about reforming the NOPD we hired off duty cops to form a security district, and became more concerned with what the new Walgreens would look like instead of how the downtown medical complex will be rebuilt.

Perhaps Percy had us nailed back in 1968 and the sort of great struggle that appeared to be getting started in 2006 (think blocky socialist realistic figures doing heroic planning things) is beyond our capacity. We were not bred in the bone to that. Percy wrote over 40 years ago that New Orleans “has nurtured a great many people who live tolerably, like to talk and eat, laugh a good deal, manage generally to be civil and at the same time mind their own business. Such virtues may have their use nowadays.”

Perhaps they do, as we contemplate another bite at building a better New Orleans with all of the gruesome meetings run by insulting junior contractors with out of town architecture firms. it will take a whole lot of civility to survive another round of this. What is important is that in spite of a city government so dysfunctional it would shame the bureaucrats of Mogadishu, a new governor who doesn’t hide his contempt for the city, three years of the complete disregard of the last central government and a current regime too busy with other things to care, we have managed to make again a city we all recognize as home: long standing problems and all.

That doesn’t mean we will cheerfully live forever with our problems. Crime is out of control, basic infrastructure like drinking water is at the edge of collapse, and city government has saddled itself with obligations we will have no way to pay for once the federal disaster loans are played out. If we want to keep this city and it’s particular if not peculiar ambiance and charm, at some point that early uprising against the green dot plan will have to prove our Easter Rising, and we will have to be ready to settle down about the business of the real revolution to come. Until then, however, we have managed to settle back in comfortably to this unique place and get most of the pieces back where they belong, especially the ones that involve talking (read drinking) and eating. I just hope we can get ourselves up from the table when push comes to shove.