This is a great book, though I’m not sure it’s for everybody. The central character is Binx Bolling, a 30-year-old stockbroker in New Orleans who is living this sort-of boring life in the suburbs, where he subscribes to Consumer Reports (“My armpits never stink”) and takes his secretaries out to the movies. He is summoned by his aunt to help deal with one of his cousin Kate’s episodes. The thing I like about this book is that rather than being a stereotypical southern novel about a wealthy family’s diminishing fortunes, complete with the slatternly and insane young woman and her austere societal stepmother (consider Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides), Percy’s novel is part existential manifesto and part send-up of that old trope. In his later novel, Lancelot, his satire of the Old South is more explicit, but here it is more along the lines of Peter Taylor, walking the line between the genuine and the send-up.
Three things of note. First, this was a welcome follow-up to Landsburg’s book (see post below) because Percy is skeptical of an ultra-rational worldview. Binx drifts around, suspicious of people who are too religious or too emotional, but he also can’t explain away his psychic condition. True to an existentialist worldview, he just is from one moment to the next. Secondly, this book is very, very funny. Binx drifts around fighting off the malaise and making pithy observations about the world. For instance, on the way to the beach with his secretary, he feels the malaise coming on and believes the afternoon ruined, and then an old man from Ohio does an illegal u-turn and rams into them. Binx is elated because the malaise is gone. Something interesting has happened.
Finally, wow, did Richard Ford steal from Percy when he wrote The Sportswriter. I won’t quote side-by-side passages, but early Frank Bascombe is very much like Binx Bolling. I liked the first Bascombe novel and hope to write something like that myself one day, but I’m surprised I’ve never heard anyone comment on the similarity between the two novels.