Gentilly Days wroght iron sign in a neutral ground in a Gentilly New Orleans suburb

Gentilly Days

New Yorker, New York Times contributor and creative writing professor Thomas Beller embarks on a road trip to pursue the meaning of class and the truth about the iconic 1960s Southern novels The Moviegoer and To Kill a Mockingbird.

My interest in Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, began, indirectly, on a road trip, which is appropriate, as The Moviegoer is, in a way, a road trip novel. I had travelled to the town of Monroeville, Alabama, in pursuit of some elusive truth about Harper Lee, the famous one-hit wonder, until, late in life, she published a second novel that upended all the assumptions, already fragile, about To Kill a Mockingbird, under circumstances that seemed suspicious. Esquire magazine sent me to see what there was to see and write about it. But beneath this broad mandate there was an unstated directive to get to the bottom of the convoluted story about how Go Set a Watchman was published, and in order to do that I had to talk to the person at the story’s center — Tonja Carter. And so I went to Monroeville to see the town’s amateur production of To Kill a Mockingbird, in the spring of 2016. Afterwards Ms. Carter, who declined to be interviewed, saw me peering through the window of the restaurant on the town square where the cast party was taking place, and waved me in.

I sat in the back at the bar, looking around, and at one point asked the person next to me if he had any idea where the line dividing the Eastern Time Zone from the Central Time Zone lay in relation to the town. He did not, but summoned a nearby waiter, a fresh-faced young man dressed in black pants, a black shirt, and a red bow tie, like all the waiters. He didn’t know, either. But he sat beside me trying to puzzle it out. Somehow, we began to talk about books. This was appropriate, because there may be no other town in America more devoted to a single book than Monroeville is devoted to To Kill a Mockingbird — murals of mockingbirds are painted onto the sides of buildings, a Mockingbird-themed museum and gift shop are located in the town square, and every spring a play based on the book has a two-week run in the very courthouse that was the book’s inspiration.

The aura of theft and malfeasance has hovered over Harper Lee for a long time, and not just because her one book is about crime and punishment. Alice Lee, Harper’s older sister — a surrogate mother in youth, a surrogate father in their adulthood and old age — had joined and then took over their father’s law practice. She remarked to a BBC researcher in 1982 that the manuscript for her sister’s second novel was stolen by a burglar. Whether or not this remark was facetious at the time, it would prove to be prophetic.

At the time of my arrival in May 2016, the town was adjusting itself in the aftermath of Harper Lee’s death that February. A few years earlier, a new Harper Lee novel had been found. The person who found it, Tonja Carter, did not have a consistent story about how and when she found it. But she was the estate’s executor. She had persuaded Harper Lee that it was a good idea to publish the manuscript, Go Set a Watchman. This was news in itself. When it was revealed that the book featured the same characters that appeared in her first, Atticus Finch in particular, it caused an uproar. The uproar became considerably louder when it became apparent that the Atticus Finch of that second novel was a much different character than the calm, paternal, attentive and just man that inspired love in so many people. If I wasn’t among the cult of Atticus, it wasn’t out of any considered dissent; I read the book in eighth grade, liked it OK, but I grew up in New York City.

The courthouse where the play is staged is the courthouse that Harper Lee used to visit as a child, where she would sometimes watch her father argue a case. Just down the street from the restaurant where I sat at the bar was a bank, and on the second floor of the bank was her father’s law office, the same one taken over by her older sister Alice, who practiced until she was 100 years old and lived until she was 103. Downstairs from the law office, in the bank vault, is where Tonja Carter found the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman in 2011 or 2014, depending on who you believe.

Which is why I was sitting at the back of the restaurant chatting with a young man in a black shirt with a red bow tie talking about literature. He was a Flannery O’Connor fan, he told me. The story that interested him most was called “Parker’s Back.” A fiercely religious woman dominates that story. The male character, her husband, seems to cower in front of her. Later, pondering Tonja Carter from a distance, this would seem significant.

I asked him how he came to his Flannery O’Connor enthusiasm, and he told me that he had a wonderful literature professor at the seminary he attended. It turned out he had recently graduated and was now in an interim period where he was debating whether to pursue his studies and become a priest or do something else.

“Where was the seminary?” I asked.

“Covington, Louisiana,” he said.

“What was the professor’s name?”

“Sister Jeanne d’Arc.”


There’s a sort of perfection in the enclosed world of Depression-era Monroeville seen from the viewpoint of a young girl, Scout. It’s part of what makes To Kill a Mockingbird so enchanting, the world untouched by outside forces, the world unto itself with its own villains and heroes.

Lee’s novel came out in 1960. Another Southern story was published a year later, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. The setting is New Orleans, a metropolis and a highly permeable world, but also enclosed, a small town, especially the world of Uptown, from which the book’s main character, Binx Bolling, has escaped. He lives in the magically bland suburb of Gentilly. Uptown is the mother ship. The newly developed suburbs of Gentilly and Lakeview are a fresh new landscape of anonymity and possibility.

The front of the Fox movie theater in 1955 in suburban New Orleans
Binx Bollinger in The Moviegoer habituated places like the Fox Theater at 4127 Elysian Fields Ave., near Gentilly Boulevard. (Photo is from 1955.) The theater opened in 1945 and closed in 1971. O.J. Valenton/The Times-Picayune archive

Binx works as a stockbroker and his idea of a good time is to take his secretaries to movies, or on road trips, “spinning” up the coast in his red MG, a “miserable vehicle, actually, with not a single virtue except for one: It is immune to the malaise.” The story is set in the run-up to Mardi Gras. If there’s a genius to the book — it did win the National Book Award, after all, and has its champions — it’s in the remarkably detached tone. Detachment is a kind of theme. Binx, the movie enthusiast, is a watcher of screens, a watcher of women, a kind of spiritual scamp. He experiences life as a kind of screen; if he were a contemporary character you might say he’s living through his phone.

He experiences life as a kind of screen; if he were a contemporary character you might say he’s living through his phone.

Percy spends a lot of energy describing landscapes, and he’s very good at it. Here is Gentilly in the early 1960s:

“Evening is the best time in Gentilly. There are not so many trees and the buildings are low and the world is all sky. The sky is a deep bright ocean full of light and life. … Station wagons and Greyhounds and diesel rigs rumble toward the Gulf Coast, their fabulous tail-lights glowing like rubies in the darkening east. Most of the commercial buildings are empty except the filling stations where attendants hose down the concrete under the glowing discs and shells and stars.”

There is much about “the search,” and “the malaise,” the former a quest for meaning, the latter an affliction of spirit that he writes about in terms redolent of addiction: The malaise is cured by a road trip with a girl, or a visit to the movie theater, but it always comes back worse, and one wonders if the malaise is an existential condition, which is the implication — the book’s epigram is a quote from Kierkegaard — or a function of the sugary pleasures of modern life, highs that famously crash, not an unfamiliar theme in New Orleans.


1950s era Canal Street in New Orleans with streetcars and stores
Binx took public transportation, riding streetcars on Canal Street. Getty Images

The one love interest that stands apart from the others is Kate, who is his aunt’s stepdaughter and a prisoner of the Uptown world from which he is a happy refugee.

Some of the book’s tension comes from watching Binx wander right up to the edge of caddishness — he is an affable guy, but his observations are tinged with malevolent wit — followed by his retreat into good manners and his sense of ethics. All the sin and grace stuff, and the Southern gentleman stuff, didn’t really appeal to me. But the sentences were often remarkable. I recently read a line, “The English cult of the Mid-century American sentence,” and it leaped out at me; I share that obsession.

Salinger, Cheever, Yates, O’Connor, too, and others. Percy falls into that category. The Moviegoer is episodic, almost like a collection of notes. It reminded me of Joan Didion’s travelogue of driving the Gulf Coast, South and West, recently published but written in 1970. It begins with a visit to a large Uptown home whose owner utters some despicably racist stuff, and then goes spinning down the coast. I thought it was an antique set piece and then I met someone present in that very scene at a party.

New Orleans mansion with a filigreed balcony and porch
Binx Bollinger in The Moviegoer tries to escape Uptown society exemplified by this mansion with a filigreed balcony and porch. Getty Images



I looked up Jeanne d’Arc Kernion, teacher of literature at St. Joseph Seminary near Covington, and wrote her about my encounter with her former student in Monroeville, and what a strong impression she had made.

My desire to connect with her was an attempt to wring some souvenir out of the whole experience in Monroeville, which had otherwise come to nothing. We had several interesting chats and I invited her to lunch and later to speak to my creative writing class at Tulane about O’Connor. Sometime after that, I visited her at the St. Joseph Seminary, technically in St. Benedict. It turns out I had been driving right by her for years as I took my daughter to ride horses in a nearby barn across the lake. One day I stopped in on the way back with Evangeline, so named before my wife and I had even the faintest idea that we would be moving to the one state in the country where such a name was, if not common, then not that unusual. The three of us had lunch and then walked the grounds. Sister Jeanne said she would be retiring soon and moving to the seminary in Kansas City.

At the end of our walk she mentioned that Walker Percy was buried here. “A wonderful man and a wonderful writer,” she said. Would I like to see the grave? I thought my 10-year-old daughter had been sporting enough about the whole tour without being subjected to a grave site of someone she didn’t know. And maybe I didn’t want to see it, either. At the time, I had not read anything by Percy, but had been determined to do so for some time. I didn’t want to finally read a guy at whose grave I had already stood. So, I passed. A couple of years went by before I read the book. By which time Sister Jeanne had retired and decamped to Kansas City. The seminary had been closed. She was the last one to leave.




Jeanne d’Arc Kernion was born in New Orleans and spent the first 10 years of her life at Broad Street near Esplanade Avenue. Then her family moved to Metairie. She is one of seven children; her siblings include a urologist at UCLA. She speaks with that miraculously faint accent that so resembles the accents one would find in Brooklyn or Hoboken once upon a time. I recently called her on the phone to talk about The Moviegoer and get her two cents.

“The first thing I like, as a New Orleanian,” she said, “is the setting of New Orleans. And I like his underlying Kierkegaardian philosophy. Binx is lost. That’s what you hear about the search. And this is just me, but I think perhaps not as much now, but there was a time when young people really could relate to that. Perhaps they still can. Binx is just fooling around. One thing after another. One woman after another. He is in Kierkegaard’s first state of the aesthetic. After Binx takes Kate to Chicago, having grown up at that time in New Orleans, she gives this big thing about class, she lights into him about how he is not doing anything right.”

Sister Jeanne went on: “I remember the day my father — I’m up in years, remember — greeted at our door a boy who had come to pick up my sister for a date. My father opened the front door and the boy was smoking a cigarette. My father sent him away. He told my sister, ‘That boy didn’t have any class. You don’t show up at someone’s door smoking a cigarette.’

“I could just hear my father and grandparents saying, ‘You can’t do that, we have class and you don’t do that.’

“The way you dress, the way you act, the way you talk to people. ‘Oh no, you wouldn’t do that.’”

She was relishing the novel’s connection to New Orleans, something that opened a window into a particular way of thinking that comes most into view around Carnival season — the balls and the beads, with which I have problems. I asked if she’d like to come and talk to my class about it. She said she will be in town visiting relatives in the fall. We have a tentative date.


Thomas Beller is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Tulane. He is the author of Seduction Theory, a collection of stories; The Sleep-Over Artist, a novel that was a New York Times Notable Book and Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2000; How To Be a Man: Scenes From a Protracted Boyhood, an essay collection; and J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, a biography that won the New York City Book Award for Biography/Memoir. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker’s Culture Desk, and The New York Times and is at work on a book about basketball.