Each year around this time, during the run-up to Ash Wednesday, I go to Mass with Binx Bolling, the philosopher-rake who narrates Walker Percy’s 1961 novel, The Moviegoer:
The church, an old one in the rear of Biloxi, looks like a post office. It is an official-looking place. The steps are trodden into scallops; the brass rail and doorplate are worn bright as gold from hard use. . . By the time Mass begins we are packed in like sardines. A woman comes up the aisle, leans over and looks down our pew. She gives me an especially hard look. I do not budge. It is like the subway. Roy Smith. . .gives up his seat to a little girl and kneels in the aisle with several other men, kneels on one knee like a tackle, elbow propped on his upright knee, hands clasped sideways. His face is dark with blood, his breath whistles in his nose as he studies the chips in the terrazzo floor
I read The Moviegoer for the first time about 20 years ago, when I was a sophomore in college. It was assigned reading for an American lit class, and I fell for it right away. It’s set in the week leading up to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where Binx has been “living the most ordinary life imaginable,” mostly going to movies, making money and trying to seduce a succession of secretaries.
Partly because Percy himself was a Catholic and was so explicit about some of his philosophical influences, much of the discussion of The Moviegoer over the years has centered on its religious and existential overtones. But what I loved about the book right away was how funny it was and how elegantly written. Percy made poetry of the most mundane stuff. A gas station was a “little tile cube of a building with its far flung porches, its apron of silky concrete and, revolving on high, its immaculate bivalve glowing in every inch of its pretty styrene…” I suppose I was the sort of college kid who saw in Binx’s ironic withdrawal the ideal stance for the smart young man to adopt, and I know I spent a lot of time trying to be just as cool and noncommittal.
I’m sure I only succeeded in looking confused.
Readers can start to feel weirdly proprietary about the books they love, and I started to think of The Moviegoer as, in some way, my book. For a while, I carried it around with me just about everywhere I went. Of course, I filled the margins with what, at the time, seemed like profound insights. I tried to recommend it to my book-loving friends, but inevitably would be disappointed when they didn’t like it quite as wildly as I did. And I formed my habit of reading it annually around Mardi Gras time. As a lit-geek stunt, this was inspired directly by Binx’s affected style of moviegoing. He would call it a “repetition,” a way of isolating and re-enacting past experiences.
The more I learned about The Moviegoer, though, the more I understood that I didn’t have any unique claim on the book. For one thing, others had discovered it before me. The novelist Richard Ford loved it. Peggy Noonan was so impressed with it that she tried to convince Ronald Reagan to select Percy for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Frank Sinatra got the award instead.) Hell, it had won a National Book Award in 1962, so it was never exactly my secret. The Moviegoer fan club turned out to be a lot bigger than I thought.
It’s not always easy to share a book you love. Lately, for example, fans of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road, which came out the same year as The Moviegoer, have had to deal with the much-hyped DiCaprio-Winslet film version. Writing about it in the online magazine Slate, Willing Davidson asked, “Why does Hollywood take our favorite novels and turn them into crap?”
Hollywood has yet to take a shot at my favorite novel, though every once in a while you hear rumors of some proposed film adaptation. As many times as I’ve read The Moviegoer, and as much as I still admire it, I wouldn’t want to see it filmed. If you get attached enough to a novel, you hate to see it messed with.
Andrew Santella is an independent writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, GQ, Slate and other publications. He blogs at andrewsantella.blogspot.com