by Tim Gilmore, 10/10/2020
1. Accidental Existentialism
“I awake,” Binx Bolling says one morning, “in the grip of everydayness. Everydayness is the enemy. No search is possible. Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength. Now nothing breaks it—but disaster. Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch.”
Bolling, the anti-hero of The Moviegoer, is an accidental existentialist. He doesn’t see many movies at all and, though he lives in New Orleans, misses Mardis Gras for an aborted trip to a stockbrokers’ convention in Chicago. He’s a war veteran and college graduate, meaningfully employed, but he feels his self is “leftover.” He mostly wanders around New Orleans, losing himself in “the search,” though he doesn’t know what he’s searching for, and battling against “the malaise,” the great plague of American society.
A Jacksonville cardiologist and nephew of the great Southern writer Walker Percy, best known for his novel The Moviegoer, which won the U.S. National Book Award in 1962 and which Time Magazine called one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, Robert Percy has called the old hotel, the erstwhile Rochester House, the River House Apartments, home since 1980. Dr. Percy, ever in his bow tie, is one of those people others describe as a “character.” Neighbors who lived beside him recall hearing him play piano, but exchanging fewer than a dozen words across the years. Walker Percy earned an M.D. at Columbia, never practiced; Robert’s M.D. comes from Mississippi.
More than a year ago, Dr. Percy agreed, via third-party mediation, that he might speak with me about living in the River House Apartments and about his relationship with his uncle if I wrote him a formal letter. No phone calls, no emails, no other electronic forms of communication.
So I wrote him, lined up some bona fides, mentioned what Southern novels I’ve taught at three colleges and the name of the person trying to connect us, the son of an architect who’d helped renovate the house, and listed the kinds of questions I’d like to ask him alongside several ways he could contact me in response to my letter. Somebody called Dr. Percy a “Riverside character,” an “odd bird,” a “very thin man,” said, “If you’ve spent much time hanging out in Riverside, you’ve seen him.” A former neighbor said, “He’s a quiet man with good taste and simple needs.” He never responded.
Now the house is for sale. A Ponte Vedra realtor shows me and potential buyers from Fleming Island four apartments. I hadn’t realized we were in Dr. Percy’s until I saw the books. It’s spare, barely not spartan. There’s a bike. A few pieces of art. Maybe two dozen books. Several Walker Percy novels, including an upside down copy of The Thanatos Syndrome and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and two copies of Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s 1996 The House of Percy: Honor, Melancholy and Imagination in a Southern Family. I’d read Wyatt-Brown’s 1986 Honor and Violence in the Old South before I knew of his two books on the Percys. I notice there’s no Moviegoer!
2. River Voyage of the Only Remaining Hotel
River House has stood at its present location for more than a century, having been loaded on a barge and shipped up the St. Johns River from Brooklyn, just beneath Downtown, to Riverside in 1911.
The second oldest structure in historic Riverside Avondale and one of the few Second Empire-style buildings in Jacksonville, River House helps the district achieve its claim to having more historic architectural styles than any other Florida neighborhood.
The style takes its name from the years of Napoleon III, 1852 to 1870, the Second French Empire. While Second Empire included gothic elements at the height of its American popularity in the late 19th century, its most noticeable characteristic is the mansard roof, often punctuated with dormers, fitting garret rooms underneath. Mansard roofs lined the tops of Paris boulevards when Baron Haussmann began his extravagant renovation of the city in the 1850s.
Still, architectural historian and preservationist Wayne Wood laments the house’s alterations from its original state. “Unfortunately,” he writes for Riverside Avondale Preservation, which he helped found in 1974, “the two-tiered veranda has been enclosed and some of the dormers have been altered.” He notes, “The building’s wooden quoins, bracketed eaves, and mansard roof present an anachronistic contrast with the modern residence next door.”
The old hotel’s river voyage more than a century ago, however, saved its life. Most of the grand homes that once lined the river from Riverside through Brooklyn along Riverside Avenue, a stationary parade once just called “The Row,” long ago disappeared. As have the hotels from that strange Victorian era when Jacksonville called itself “Winter City in Summer Land.” As writes Wood, River House “is the only remaining hotel building from Jacksonville’s great tourist era in the 1870s and 1880s.”
3. Spirit-Presence of Strange Places
Mark Pappas, whose father Ted Pappas partnered to renovate River House and manage it 40 years ago tells me, “Inspired by our conversation, I decided to re-read The Moviegoer.” Somewhere in his century-old two story house on Oak Street, Mark’s old copy lies buried, so he decided a trip to Chamblin Bookmine would be easier. “First copy I pick up,” he says, “has a handwritten note on the inside cover.”
The note seems written to be discovered, perhaps by some antiquarian bookseller one day, or some aficionado of Southern Gothic, still possibly by some writer-psychogeographer trying desperately to piece together puzzle parts of canonical literature and old streets of a town older still.
Worrying over his trip from New Orleans to Chicago, Binx Bolling, narrating the novel, says, “Me, it is my fortune and misfortune to know how the spirit-presence of a strange place can enrich a man or rob a man but never leave him alone, how, if a man travels lightly to a hundred strange cities and cares nothing for the risk he takes, he may find himself No one and Nowhere.”
The inscription says, on a blank flyleaf, “Walker Percy is the uncle of my frequent handball opponent, Dr. Robert Percy (Shands Hospital). He’s told me many stories of his famous uncle.” Mark says, “I recognized the handwriting. But there was no mystery to solve as the inscribed left his info on the first page.”
Above—“Walker Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916, graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1937, and became a Doctor of Medicine at Columbia University in 1941. The Moviegoer, his first novel, was awarded the 1962 National Book Award for Fiction. His other books include […et al…] Walker Percy died in 1990.”—Doug Milne had signed his name and written out his phone number.
“That’s Doug Milne,” Mark says, “former owner of the River House and lifelong friend of my family. He gave me my nickname, Hiker, which has largely stood the test of time. And he was the officiant at my wedding. And later counseled me on my divorce.”
So does Binx Bolling “muse along,” in his own words, “as quietly as a ghost.” He wanders streets of newer old houses before dawn, then watches the light come up in the heat of the air. “Instead of trying to sleep I try to fathom the mystery of this suburb at dawn. Why do these splendid houses look so defeated at this hour of the day?”
So I meet with Doug Milne, an attorney, in his office. He offers me coffee and we talk about the novel. He’s gracious, genteel and kind. Strangely, through all the years he was involved with River House, he’s never been inside of it. When I ask him how that could be, he laughs and says he’s not quite sure. We talk about old houses and Ted Pappas and he tells me how proud he is of his son and says he’ll get in touch with Dr. Percy.
I return to the circumnavigations of Binx Bolling, Walker Percy’s fictional alter ego, through and across New Orleans. Like old addresses I haunt across Jacksonville, I note even newer houses “look haunted. Even the churches out here look haunted,” Binx says. “What spirit takes possession of them?”
4. House of Love, Art and Creativity
Rachel Rippey went for a run one evening and saw the “For Rent” sign in front of the second oldest house in Riverside. She doubted she could afford it, but felt mesmerized. Then she was shopping for a dress for a friend’s wedding when she ran into an old friend from high school who was looking for an apartment. She and Liz moved in on the first floor. Rachel took the bedroom that may once have been a ballroom, complete with river view, grand arches and fireplace.
Soon she’d be rushing home from work to make time to sit by the river and watch the sunset. Some nights, “the neighborhood cats would wrestle under the house,” and though it sounded “like Pet Sematary,” it always made her laugh.
When Tropical Storm Beryl roared through Jacksonville in 2012, Rachel stayed home to ride it out. Born and raised in Florida, she was used to the constant barrage of storms. But that night, “the river rose over the river wall and surrounded the house. Literally. Thankfully, the house sits well up off the ground. We started to wonder whether we should’ve left. The house was suddenly a cruise ship. There were waves, I kid you not!, slamming against my bedroom window.”
The feeling of living in such an old building, of being young in a place with such history, gave her “a sense of security that’s hard to find.” Now living on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan, she says River House is still the oldest building she’s ever called home. She loved the sense of community she shared with the building’s other tenants. “Sometimes we’d run into each other at events or just out at bars and it was such a cool connection. It was like we knew we shared the best house in Jacksonville.”
It was in her River House apartment that Rachel started Dandelion House, a nonprofit helping find meaningful work for people with severe disabilities. Today she works with professional development for special needs educators for the New York City Department of Education. Her River House roommate Liz Grebe ran Jacksonville’s Riverside Arts Market and now coordinates events for The Jacksonville Business Journal.
“My time in that house was so full of love, art, warmth and creativity. I started a nonprofit out of that house. I had a zillion game nights with friends. That house gave me shelter through the roller coaster times of finding love in my 20s. I became the adult version of myself in that house. I moved into that house a broken lost 24 year old at the start of my career with no idea how I was going to make it work. I left that house in the final year of my 20s, just after meeting my soulmate, headed to New York City, where I’d always dreamed of living. Maybe in some way the hope that was so vibrant in my life in that house can be part of its history.”
5. The Silence
I re-read Binx Bolling’s late-night notes-to-self:
“Starting point for search:
“It no longer avails to start with creatures and prove God.
“Yet it is impossible to rule God out.
“The only possible starting point: the strange fact of one’s own invincible apathy—that if the proofs were proved and God presented himself, nothing would be changed. Here is the strangest fact of all.
“Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference. Is this God’s ironic revenge? But I am onto him.”
I make myself a nuisance in my search for Dr. Percy. I call Doug Milne four or five times over as many weeks. He’s so gracious and I feel like a gnat in his ear. I write the cardiologist another letter. Still no response. Except, of course, the silence is his response.
Very well. I’m not the depressed pastor in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film Winter Light, sharing what he believes was the “greatest hardship” of Jesus Christ, the moment after Jesus cries out to his father on the cross, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”—the result, the awful moment of “God’s silence.”
Besides, though The Moviegoer contains an epilogue, the last chapter ends, “It is impossible to say.” Turns out, that statement applies to everything in Binx Bolling’s experience. How strange and wondrous for a novel to end by stating the impossibility of saying!
6. Vanishing Point
We forget, by far, the vast majority of our living. Most every life ever lived on earth has vanished, by now, entirely. Most moments of an old house have seeped into its walls and floors beyond ever being told. Maybe that’s the feeling of presence with which an old house meets us. The walls can’t talk, but we hang onto that “if.”
Some people say the old house was once a brothel. There’s no evidence of that and people make that allegation about so many old houses. If this house, this old hotel, played some small part in Mary Todd Lincoln’s losing her mind, it also brought Rachel Rippey into a wonderful future now present.
I wonder how likely it is that there’s always been a piano playing in the house. Surely in its days as genteel hotel. The realtor Lee Davis remembers a piano being hoisted up outside to a second story balcony. Rachel played her piano here, but laughs that she “wouldn’t call it playing.” She shared a wall with Dr. Percy and though they never exchanged more that a couple of hellos, she heard him play his piano regularly.
The house wears its height better than most much taller buildings downtown. Like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, larger inside than out, and like early skyscrapers best designed, the house stands taller than it is. Or it’s taller than it actually stands.
Something to do with how it leverages windows above corner balconies, windows all the way up, like the inverse of that story anthropologist Clifford Geertz tells in his 1973 book The Interpretation of Cultures. An Englishman, “having been told” by an Indian, “that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle,” next inquired what the turtle rested atop. “After that,” it’s “turtles all the way down.”
But inside these corners, with ceilings beveled beneath the mansard roof, it’s windows all the way up, and the stairs spiral upward in a graceful ascending nautilus, the rococo of the Golden Ratio.
And perhaps the spiral continues past the stairs, on into invisibility, like the stories in the walls, as unending as the line of ghosts receding behind us into the vanishing point of life experience. It is impossible to say.