Percy in the Pictures: An Interview with Director Win Riley

By Nathan C. Martin

Walker Percy is modern New Orleans’ literary behemoth. Though his influence is unlikely to eclipse Tennessee Williams’, and it’s possible John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces rivals even The Moviegoer‘s fame, no local writer from the last half of the 20th century produced a body of work that matches Percy’s. He is exalted in New Orleans and the South, and recognized internationally for the aesthetic mastery, dark humor, and philosophical rigor of his novels and essays. Eminent literary critic Harold Bloom called The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award in 1968, “a permanent American book.”

Win Riley’s new film, Walker Percy: A Documentary Film, offers a succinct biography of the author along with insights into his life and writerly concerns. It explores the series of tragedies that shaped Percy as a young man—his grandfather and father both committed suicide, and his mother died in a car accident shortly after his father died—as well as the arc of Percy’s beliefs from an agnostic with a devotion to science to a Roman Catholic (albeit a bad one, as Percy would say). The film chronicles the time Percy spent as a teenager with his uncle William Alexander Percy, who used his substantial wealth and influence to shape his hometown Greenville, Miss., into something of a cultural mecca. It features interviews with Richard Ford, Paul Elie, Walter Isaacson, and a number of other writers, scholars, and friends of Walker’s. Many were referred to Riley by Walker Percy’s widow, Bunt, who also provided archival footage of Walker and their family.

Riley is a New Orleans native who spent high school and college in New Zealand before returning home. His previous documentary film, Walter Anderson: Realizations of an Artist, won several awards and was broadcast on PBS.

Walker Percy: A Documentary Film will screen at Loyola University New Orleans on Wed., Jan. Jan. 26, at 7 p.m. in Monroe Hall’s Nunemaker Auditorium. The event is free. More info here.


Room 220: I like the opening sequence of the film, when the excerpt from The Moviegoer that describes “the search” is read over panoramic shots of modern-day New Orleans. It immediately posits Walker’s words as relevant in contemporary times, 50 years after they were published. Do you think the nature of “the search” has changed since Walker wrote about it?

Win Riley: Not really. I think that’s partly why I shot contemporary New Orleans. I feel like The Moviegoer is a very contemporary novel in terms of its themes, despite its references to Rory Calhoun and William Holden and people that aren’t quite as familiar as they were in the 60s. I think the themes of looking for meaning in the finite and temporal world are very relevant. The things that Binx, the protagonist, was struggling with are things that people still deal with.

Rm220: Any brief biography I’ve ever read of Walker calls him a philosopher and a “doctor-turned-writer.” But—and this was in the film—he actually went to med school at Columbia, where he contracted tuberculosis dissecting a cadaver, and he never went back to medicine. Do you think the “doctor-turned-writer” characterization has perhaps been overplayed?

WR: Maybe. I don’t think he enjoyed having labels put on him but I don’t think he minded the label “diagnostician,” which is a strange word but one that he was okay with—one who diagnoses the modern malaise. He never really practiced medicine, so possibly it is overemphasized, but I think when The Moviegoer came out I think the publishers used it to market the book.

Rm220: It’s a great label to have in terms of publicity. It worked wonders for William Carlos Williams.

WR: Exactly. I think Walker, in some ways, thought of himself as a person of science throughout his life, who had taken on a literary outlook.

Rm220: The film talks at length about the history of suicide in Walker’s family. There are scattered references to suicide throughout Walker’s writing, and in his Paris Review interview he goes on a rant about how the anger that fuels his satire stems from the increasing devaluation of human life in society. How do you think Walker felt about his father and his grandfather not valuing their own lives enough to keep from committing suicide?

WR: Although the term “existentialism” doesn’t really mean much now—or at least is difficult to define—the existentialists were interested in this idea of suicide. Camus said something along the lines of, whether to commit suicide is the philosophical question. For Camus, it was all about the absurdity of life, an awareness of the absurdity of life, and Walker had caught on to that. He would talk in interviews about this idea of, if you’re in despair and looking at suicide as an option, deciding against it gives you a different perspective on your life, because you’ve recognized suicide as an option but you’ve decided against ending it. So the way you look at the world is completely changed.

Rm220: I feel like a lot of people—maybe it’s like jazz music in a sense—in Europe seem to know a lot about Walker Percy. I read something recently in which Peter Handke was talking about how he didn’t like contemporary American fiction, but said that, “Walker Percy, now there’s a great novelist.” But it seems like, in the rest of the States outside the South, not that many people pay attention to Walker Percy.

WR: I think writers do. And it may just be that all I’ve been reading lately is Walker Percy, but I find his influence all over the place. For instance, I found a strong Percian element in that Joseph O’Neill book, Netherland, and searched out some information, and he claims Percy as one of the people he’s interested in. But that’s one of the strange things about making this film. When I tell people I’ve made a film about Walker Percy, some are obsessed with wanting to see it, and there are a huge number of people who I just get blank looks from. There’s no middle ground. It’s either people are devoted to him or they have no idea who I’m talking about.

Rm220: I was reading a Harold Bloom essay about Walker Percy—it was the introduction to a volume of criticism on him—and he talks about how he really loved The Moviegoer

WR: —and he says he wants to wave a flag that says, “Bring back Binx Bolling!”

Rm220: And Bloom says Percy’s later books drifted off into moralizing, into Catholic dogma, to their detriment. Would you agree with Bloom in that you want to bring back Binx Bolling?

WR: Well, The Moviegoer is my favorite of his novels. And Binx is the one main protagonist, with the exception of Lancelot, I think, that he doesn’t bring back in later novels. But I think Bloom’s not just getting at bringing back that character. I think he thought Walker, in his later novels, was focusing on moral issues in too open a way, and early on that’s not as apparent. When I read The Moviegoer I didn’t pick up on any Catholic themes in it, and I don’t think they’re necessarily there. And that’s one of its charms. As Binx says in the book: “If someone talked to me about religion I’d jump in the bayou.” He’s not arguing one point of view or outlook on the world. It’s more urging a certain awareness, if anything.