James Wilcox’s "Modern Baptists": Bobby Pickens, Ignatius Reilly, and Binx Bolling

Toni Morrison, in a 1998 US News and World Report article, called James Wilcox’s Modern Baptists (1983) one of her three “favorite works by unsung writers.” This, of course, is high praise coming from such a luminary in American letters, and one read through Wilcox’s novel will more than live up to Morrison’s claim. Last week, I reread Wilcox’s first novel in preparation for the NEH Summer Institute “Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience” which will take place at UL Lafayette this coming June. As could be expected, my reading was focused, partly, on the similarities and differences between Gaines’s and Wilcox’s representations of the South, and specifically Louisiana. 


I could take this time to focus on those aspects of the novel; however, as I read about Carl Robert “Bobby” Pickens, his brother Francis Xavier (F.X.), Burma LaStelle, and Donna Lee Keely, I couldn’t help but think about other Louisiana authors as well. In fact, for the majority of the novel, I kept conflating Binx Bolling from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961) and Ignatius Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) with Bobby Pickens’s search for himself throughout the novel. In an interview with John Lowe, Wilcox stated that he had not read Toole’s novel as of 1997; however, I could not help but see the Roman Catholic Reilly in the Protestant Pickens. 

Both Reilly and Pickens exist removed, in a way, from reality. Ignatius does not necessarily realize, or for that matter care, what effects his actions have on those around him, including his own other. He preaches truth, or some semblance of it, and he never really acts completely truthful throughout his picaresque adventure. Likewise, Pickens prides himself on telling the truth; however, he has moments when he skews that truth in order to save himself and possibly harm those around him: telling Toinette he did not steal her watch and telling people that he beat up F.X. Numerous people in Ignatius’s and Pickens’s lives work to bring the boyish men around. These attempts fail with Ignatius becomes he ultimately leaves everyone who cares for him behind when he sets out for New York with Myrna; Pickens, on the other hand, becomes connected with his family and the friends in the end when F.X. takes him to a Christmas party at Donna Lee’s.

One similarity that exemplifies Rielly’s and Pickens’s inability to meaningfully connect with those around them occurs before the start of either novel. Both characters went to college, for a short time, and neither one actually finished. Reilly decided that the bus ride over Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans to Baton Rouge was scary, and he started a kerfuffle with a professor. Pickens, on the other hand, could not stand the dorms. After telling Burma that he was in the class of 1963 at St. Jude, the narrator intones, “He did not feel like telling her he hadn’t graduated but had dropped out his junior year because he hated living in the dorm. Everyone was always snapping rattails at you in the shower” (14). For Pickens, the camaraderie, or I would say intimacy, scared him. 

Like Binx Bolling in Percy’s novel, Pickens seeks to find himself and break out of the monotony of his mundane existence. While Percy delves deep into the psyche of Bolling through a first person point of view, Wilcox keeps a distance from Pickens, allowing the omniscient narrator to chronicle multiple characters throughout the novel. Pickens exists day-to-day, wanting to sit at home in his underwear to watch television. Rather than living life fully, Pickens fakes it. In order to be seen, he goes to cultural events in the hopes that someone will see him and notice him; however, he cannot truly interact with the people there because of his lack of intimacy. When he tries to approach Jerry and Jill at the opera, he falters and they make a quick escape. 

From the very beginning of The Moviegoer, Binx acknowledges his mundane, ordinary existence. When discussing the contents of his wallet, he echoes William H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen” when he comments on the items that populate his billfold: “It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a new styrene card with one’s name on it certifying, so to speak, one’s right to exist” (7). Binx searches, throughout the, for his reason to exist. Likewise, Mr. Pickens lives life in a similar manner. While he is not as overt in his search for the reasons why he exists, he struggles to escape the mundane, ordinary existence he lives as a middle aged college drop out who begins the novel as an assistant manager at Sonny Boy. Wilcox does not go off on long tangential philosophical passages like Percy or Toole do. Instead, Wilcox lets the action take over. 


These are not the only similarities between these books, but they are the major ones that I noticed when reading Wilcox’s novel. Next post, I will discuss the African American presence in Modern Baptists and Hunk City. What similarities do you see? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. 
Wilcox, James. Modern Baptists. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. 


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