Stephen Amidon on Walker Percy's <em>The Moviegoer</em>

Some novels simply do not go away. They lodge in your consciousness, expanding rather than disappearing after the last page is turned. Although there are countless other books waiting to be read, you find yourself returning to this one, hungry and perplexed, and even a bit uneasy about its effect on you. Its mysteries deepen with each reading. Your curiosity about it is never quenched. You cannot dispense with it.

The Moviegoer has proved to be just such a book for me, as it has for countless others. The writing of Richard Ford and David Gates, for instance, is unimaginable without this slim novel. I first read it while a college student, and have reread it a dozen times since. And each reading has had the same jolting effect on me. It's not that there is anything so special about the story itself. Set around the time of carnival in 1950s New Orleans, Walker Percy's first novel depicts a few days in the life of John Bickerson Bolling, known as Binx, a 30-year-old New Orleans stockbroker from a "good" family. As the story opens, he is undertaking the low-intensity seduction of his new secretary, a big-boned and suspicious southern girl who, like just about everyone else in the book, doesn't quite know what to make of her suitor. When his seduction fails, Binx visits his mother's new family at their summer lodge, using the opportunity to take his 14-year-old half-brother, Lonnie - dying of a spinal affliction - to the movies. He then travels on business to Chicago with his emotionally brittle cousin Kate, who is in fact escaping the close scrutiny of her mother, Binx's formidable Aunt Emily, as well as her psychiatrist. The trip ends in disaster, with Binx's inconclusive lovemaking with his cousin in a train's sleeper causing further chaos. The novel's action concludes with Binx being called to the carpet by his aunt, who despairs of his feckless disregard for his privileged place in the world.

Despite this near plotlessness and the novel's beautifully effortless style, The Moviegoer is in fact one of the most profound novels ever written. Using the elusive thought of the Danish philosopher S0ren Kierkegaard as his foundation, Percy traces with unforgettable precision an individual soul's passage through the world. His Binx is on a search that proves every bit as urgent as that of Bunyan's pilgrim, Christian, as he looks for a way of living that helps him avoid being "sunk in everydayness". He sees the people around him - draped in rectitude and tradition, believing their personalities are solid items and their values founded on eternal truths - as being, quite simply, dead.

Binx's compulsive moviegoing becomes an unexpected remedy for this death-in-life. Through it, he is able to inhabit a sort of parallel dimension, where reality and unreality collide, creating a heightened sense of the world without its entombing facticity. Similarly, Binx's womanising mirrors that of Kierkegaard's Johannes in his Diary of the Seducer, in which seduction becomes a means of suspending time and holding mortality in abeyance. Binx is at war with malaise, the inevitable by-product of everydayness. His search is not a callow quest for new sensations, but rather an exercise in the art of rotation, heightening his experiences by standing them on their heads. "A rotation I define as the experiencing of the new beyond the expectation of the experiencing of the new. For example, taking one's trip to Taxco would not be a rotation; but getting lost on the way and discovering a hidden valley would be."

While the source of this pilgrimage is existential, Percy is artist enough to situate it in an actual event - Binx's wounding during the Korean war, when he was shot in the shoulder and spent several hours slipping in and out of consciousness before being rescued. Far from being traumatised, Binx treasures the memory as the one time in his life when he inhabited that pure space between this world and the next, between being and nothingness, where actuality and potentiality melted woozily into each other.

If this all sounds drily schematic, it isn't. Although the novel, written in 1961, is very much of its time in the way Percy tackles the questions raised by postwar existentialism, the tone of his writing in no way echoes the gloomy fiction which that movement engendered. For a short novel, The Moviegoer overflows with memorable people and comic set pieces. Minor characters come vividly to life in just a paragraph or two.

There is Aunt Emily's black servant, Mercer, who holds open a car door for his mistress "grudgingly and cranes up and down the street as much to say that he may be a chauffeur but not a footman". Or the St Louis businessman who assiduously underlines optimistic phrases in the newspaper he is reading on the train, no doubt to bore his wife with upon arriving home. Throughout his journey, Binx collides with people immersed in everydayness, little dragons he must gently slay in order to keep going. But they are as nothing compared to the novel's larger characters. Aunt Emily is a ferocious opponent for Binx, confronting him like some country club Grand Inquisitor to remind him of his obligation to family and society. Doomed Lonnie, who is wrestling with the concept of his mortal sins from the confines of a wheelchair he has never even left, stands at the other end of the spectrum, sweetly summoning Binx to a life of pure spiritual duty. Only crazy, loveable Kate offers him a connection with the world that does not threaten to ensnare him in the everyday.

It is a connection Binx finally makes, marrying his cousin at the novel's end after withstanding his aunt's most ferocious assault and bidding poor Lonnie farewell. Whether the marriage will last is a question left unanswered. Binx's search continues, as does the reader's, spurred on by this remarkable book, which proves to be a benchmark against which we may measure our own soul's progress, time and again.

Stephen Amidon's most recent novel is The New City (Black Swan, £6.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Who needs 12 when one will do?