The Deeper Side of Mardi Gras
Walker Percy’s search for meaning
Joseph Fiedler illustration
Mardi Gras appears frequently in contemporary fiction, particularly in popular novels as a colorful backdrop for criminality, but its purpose in the Catholic tradition from which it springs is rarely acknowledged. A writer who connects this bacchanal celebration to its original religious conclusion was a man one scholar called “the last Catholic novelist.”
Mardi Gras and New Orleans provide the setting for Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award and established Percy’s reputation as an important contemporary writer. As a Catholic convert, The Moviegoer is the first of Percy’s published novels developing characters searching for meaning in an increasingly secularized culture.
New Orleans’ neighborhoods and its Carnival serves Percy well in telling the story of protagonist Binx Bolling’s spiritual journey from melancholic loner to loving caretaker.
Percy defies publishing dictates about being too specific in setting. Name dropping such locations as Galatoire’s and Pirates Alley is risky, so says the logic. It is like trying to sell a house with a portrait of Aunt Mildred hanging over the mantel – too personal, too alienating. Yet for New Orleans readers, references to St. Charles Avenue and the krewe of Rex creates home sweet home. Percy, however, had another agenda: the name dropping served a thematic purpose.
Bolling’s transformation occurs in the late 1950s in the week leading up to Fat Tuesday, a time of parades, parties and nowadays a good deal of debauchery. It is a week that represents the previous four years of his life: seeing movies, making money as a stockbroker and chasing women, mostly his own secretaries.
Not by coincidence, Percy places Bolling’s office and apartment on Elysian Fields Avenue. Like Adam in the biblical book of Genesis, Bolling exiles himself from his own Garden of Eden in the Garden District, where his motherly Aunt Emily lives, sometime after returning from the Korean War.
In mythology, the Elysian Fields is a pleasant sector of Hades reserved for heroes. It is a fitting home base for Bolling, who appears to be following in the footsteps of his dead father, his namesake. John Bickerson Bolling served as a flight surgeon in Great Britain’s RCAF and died in Crete before America entered World War II. Much of Bolling’s depression is linked to his father’s early death. He believes his troubled father went to war as an act of suicide.
A philosophical sort, much like his creator Percy, Bolling muses on big ideas. The novel opens with Bolling reminded of his near death in Korea, and how he had vowed, if he lived, that he would pursue “the search.” What he seeks isn’t specified, but the search is a way out of “everydayness,” Bolling says. He raises the question of perhaps seeking God, but dances around the subject, refusing to answer.
In the week leading up to Mardi Gras, Bolling pursues his newest secretary, Sharon Kincaid, and obliges a request to watch over his aunt’s step daughter, Kate Cutrer. Like Bolling, Cutrer survived a near-death experience that shadows her life. Because the car accident killed her fiancé, her step mother believes Cutrer is suicidal. Soon enough, it becomes clear that Cutrer and Bolling have far more in common than Bolling and his secretary.
Kincaid reads Peyton Place, a steamy popular novel published in 1956. She also has a comical way of saying “Are you kidding?” to any question that appears to have an obvious answer. Cutrer, a Sarah Lawrence College graduate, speaks of her visits with a psychiatrist and offers analysis of Bolling’s behavior. She sees what others do not. She knows that Bolling’s self-exile to Gentilly, living in an apartment fronted by an aluminum seagull on the screen door, indicates that he’s like her “only worse. Much worse.” She tells him that the car accident enriched her life because it scared her into consciousness. “That’s my secret,” she tells him, “just as the war is your secret.”
These two share near-death experiences and depression and live double lives. Bolling’ internal voice is sardonic, but he presents a charming façade. He describes himself as quiet and not very smart, but to others he’s brilliant, humorous and, as his aunt says, a “young scamp.”
He drives an MG, a red convertible he bought to overcome malaise and to seduce his secretaries. The novel is so tightly drawn around the Catholic tradition of Mardi Gras as allowed indulgence before Lent begins, one can’t help but wonder if Percy chose the MG because of its initials.
The “search” begins a week before Mardi Gras and ends on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, Bolling’s 30th birthday. Ash Wednesday, a holy day that begins Lent’s fasting and prayer, marks the end of Bolling’s search for good reason. Even though he doesn’t acknowledge that the search has ended because he has found what he sought, this holy day represents the redemption brought about his engagement to Cutrer. His marriage bonds him to family, a cottage in the Garden District and a decision to go to medical school.
Bolling’s surrender to a life of service is the outcome of the search. In his devotion to caring for a frail wife and his half siblings, he finds a cure for his despair.
After publication of The Moviegoer, Percy became dismayed that critics misinterpreted his intent and suggested that Bolling suffered a psychological disorder rather than spiritual alienation, says Kieran Quinlan in The Last Catholic Novelist, an analysis of Percy’s work.
“The ironic voice that pervades the novel had prevented critics from giving it a religious interpretation,” Quinlan writes. “Percy intended that his next production would be less ambiguous.”n