Much of the action of The Moviegoer
takes place within the mind of the protagonist, Binx Bolling, who, nearing his thirtieth birthday, retreats to inwardness, "sunk in the everydayness of life," baffled by its ambiguities and contradictions. Although he is a successful broker in New Orleans and a veteran, Binx has few friends, and although he has had a number of affairs with his secretaries, he does not know the meaning of love. Immersed in the obdurate ordinariness of his social life, family, and job, he is a "wayfarer" who feels homeless and abandoned.
Binx thus embarks on a quest for meaning which evolves into a veiled search for God. As a seeker, he is discouraged, since "as everyone knows, the polls report that 98% of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2% are atheists and agnostics—which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker." He wants to be "onto something," to feel authenticated as a human being, for simply "to become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something." It is this intuition that underlies his obsession with movies: "The movies are onto the search," he says, but they always end in the same everydayness which brings him despair. The hero "takes up with the local librarian" and "settles down with a vengeance."
Ultimately, his cinematic excursions bring him no closer to a solution, but when he is drawn into the life of Kate Cutrer, the stepdaughter of his great-aunt Emily, he finds both the courage and the determination to confront life as it is.
When Kate’s fiance is killed in an automobile accident, she lapses into despair, secretly drinking heavily and contemplating suicide. After Kate jilts a willing suitor, Binx’s school chum, Walter Wade, Emily enlists Binx as an aide and confidant in helping Kate through her emotional trauma.
During the Mardi Gras season, Binx is sent on a business trip, and Kate impulsively requests that he let her join him. In the aftermath of their trip and the growing empathy with which Binx perceives Kate’s malady, he discovers his own humanity and worth. In his compassion and risk-taking on Kate’s behalf, he transcends the ordinariness in which he has been trapped and conquers his malaise.
In the novel’s climax, Binx is lectured severely by his aunt for his failure to meet the standards of Southern gentlemanliness. Paradoxically, this liberates Binx, and he and Kate marry, free of the facade of gentility in which they were both bred. In the epilogue, Binx reveals that his aunt has learned to understand and forgive him for what he is: "The Bolling family had gone to seed and...I was not one of her heroes but a very ordinary fellow."