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Binx Bolling is on a search—a quest for the meaning of life in modern America. He often visits his great-aunt Emily’s home for lunch, where he talks to her about the cosmic importance of the lives of people they know. She wants him to go to medical school, but he frequents movies and watches television as a way of distracting himself from domestic realities and from personal involvement with those around him. He is a stockbroker who has affairs with his various secretaries.

At one of Binx’s luncheons with his great-aunt, she elicits his help in warding off a “nervous break-down” that is evidently forthcoming for his distant cousin, Kate Cutrer. Aunt Emily has found Kate’s hidden bottles of whiskey and sodium pentobarbital. Binx agrees to help; that is, he agrees to give Kate attention and keep her distracted. At a subsequent lunch, Walter Wade shows up to talk football and make preparations for Mardi Gras with Uncle Jules. Walter, an old fraternity brother of Binx, and Kate are engaged to marry.

Binx and Kate decide to watch the Mardi Gras parade together, in which they see Walter and after which they attend a movie. Slowly, over time, they fall in love with each other, and Kate cancels her engagement to Walter. Binx is attracted to his new secretary, Sharon Kincaid, and spends time with her. He eventually realizes, however, that it is Kate whom he really wants. It is revealed, in turn, that Sharon is in love with another man.

When Binx proposes marriage to Kate, she delays an answer. At the office the next morning, a Saturday, he invites Sharon to go swimming with him and to have a “date” for the day. She accepts, and they have a minor car accident. They exchange platitudes of love at the picnic on the beach. Binx takes Sharon to meet his mother and other family members; then, predictably, they go to yet another movie.

After going to church with his mother, Binx returns to the home of his aunt Emily, where he learns that Kate, that very morning, has attempted suicide. Emily discovered Kate before she died and had telephoned for a doctor, who came to the house and pumped the whiskey and pentobarbital from her stomach. Emily and Binx discuss what is to be done about Kate, with nothing being resolved. Binx then converses with Kate herself, but toward no immediate end. Even though both have a great understanding of each other, this understanding is self-defeating. Binx cannot lie and tells her that life has meaning, for he had found none for himself.

Binx is scheduled to make a business trip to Chicago. At the last moment he decides to take Kate with him, but he does not inform Emily. They travel by train, and both seem to be doing fine with each other and with themselves. The trip is somewhat spoiled for Kate because they discover another couple on the train whom they knew. Binx and Kate discuss the meaning of life and death and their own roles in the universe. Binx returns persistently to thoughts about his search for meaning in life. They make numerous references to movies. They conclude little of importance. Kate mutters, “Losing hope is not so bad. There’s something worse: losing hope and hiding it from yourself.” Kate and Binx attempt to have sex in the sleeper of the train but fail. In Chicago, Binx perfunctorily takes care of his business appointments, leaving Kate at the hotel. The two of them then go to yet another movie. Back at the hotel, Emily telephones....

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She is furious because Binx had taken Kate to Chicago without telling anyone. They leave Chicago by bus to return home.

Back in New Orleans, Kate and Binx avoid most of the Mardi Gras parade and activities. They return to Emily’s house, where she castigates Binx, excessively, for taking Kate with him without telling anyone. The conversation becomes rather a social diatribe, with Emily making observations about manners, the class system, history, heritage, literature, art, and responsibility. Binx is dutifully apologetic but obviously cannot undo what had been done. Emily claims that “Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal.” Binx agrees with her. Ironically, it is Binx who understands the source of this “enshrined mediocrity.”

Binx escapes his aunt’s wrathful gentility. Kate is waiting for him, having overheard every word of the conversation. It is, on that day, Binx’s thirtieth birthday. He concludes from his “dark pilgrimage” of thirty years that “Nothing remains but desire”—desire for sex, desire for life, desire to search. The awareness of the futility of such efforts is for him, inevitable.

In the end, Kate and Binx marry, as does his secretary, Sharon Kincaid, and her boyfriend. Two of Binx’s family members (his uncle Jules and his brother Scott) die. The two newlyweds are left alone. The search for life has not concluded, but it has somehow ceased to matter.