January 1, 2001

Meeting The Moviegoer

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories,Media — schroder @ 3:30 pm

In 1977, I returned from my junior year at college and hurried to the funeral of my Great Aunt Bolling, I fell in with other latecomers behind the casket being wheeled down the aisle of the church. A distinguished gentleman was in front of me. He turned, caught my eye and nodded hello. He seemed somehow familiar. At the burial, my father introduced me to him: “Meet your cousin, Walker Percy.”
I had heard Walker’s name spoken with reverence just a few months earlier by fellow English students at the University of Virginia. During literary sessions at my fraternity, passages from his novels had been read out loud, alongside excerpts from William Faulkner. But I had not yet joined the ranks of his devotees. I wasn’t even aware we were cousins. It turned out we were related by marriage, through the very woman whose funeral we were attending. But in the South, even this tenuous a relationship is enough to call someone “cousin” – and to ask a favor.
Hearing I wanted to be a newspaperman, he set up an interview for me with his famous hometown newspaper in Greenville, Mississippi. I landed the job at the paper and the next day began my lifelong interest in Walker’s writings by spending a Saturday with him and his family at their home in Covington, Louisiana.
That fall, I vowed to read all of Walker’s novels and went to the college bookstore and ordered first editions. His second, third and fourth books were easy to locate. I purchased them for less than $10 each. But the store manager advised me not to buy the first edition of his prize-winning first novel, “The Moviegoer,” because sellers were asking $50. Today, it sells for $2,000.
At the time, both the price and the premise of the book seemed just out of my reach. I had committed my college years to enjoying every moment because I knew the experience was a short one. I reveled in all I saw and everyone I met. I was on a search for meaning every moment I was there.
Life beyond college had no roadmap or defining limits. And for a creative type like me, finding meaning in the drudgery of the everyday was a daunting challenge – the same one that haunts this perplexing book’s narrator, Binx Bolling – named perhaps for our relative.
Every few years, when I would feel lost in a holding pattern of despair, I’d pull this novel off the shelf to remember that the mere act of searching for more meaning in life makes it worth it.
When Walker autographed my first editions, I promised I would return with a first edition of “The Moviegoer” and thank him for helping me start my career as a newspaperman. But I moved, changed jobs, married, had children and life became all too ordinary in its busyness.
One day, after a pre-dawn business meeting in Buckhead, I picked up the morning paper. Walker’s obituary was on the front page.
I was crushed. I had allowed myself to be swallowed by the everyday. That morning, as I trudged into an office building with thousands of other seemingly uninspired employees, I vowed to do better. I promised I would begin a search for a more meaningful job, that I would find a way to thank Walker publicly and that eventually I would find that autographed first edition of The Moviegoer to complete my collection. That final search, at least, continues to this day.

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