Book Reviewed: The Moveigoer, by Walker Percy
Have you ever read a book that you absolutely loved, but if you had to explain to someone what it was about, you would be at a complete loss? That reading the book was such a joy, but you can't totally figure out what the big themes were? I just had that experience.
Walker Percy's The Moviegoer is one of the best novels I've read in a long time. Percy's debut book, it won the 1962 National Book Award and won the adoration of just about every critic in the U.S. I've known about the book's existence for years, but I just finally got around to reading it. Man, am I glad I did.
Our narrator here is almost-thirty-year-old Jack "Binx" Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker from a classic, genteel Southern family that's gone a bit to ruin. Bolling is a pretty passive guy. He's not a fan of real life, so he escapes it by having affairs with his secretaries and spending lots of time in dark movie theaters. Bolling knows himself quite well, but he's lost and wandering in his surroundings. He has a good relationship with his Aunt Emily and his troubled step-cousin, Kate, but he's not interested in the idea of being a respectable Bolling that his aunt has. For much of the book, he's just doing his thing, avoiding real entanglements with life. It's only when things come to a head in the book's final fifty pages that he ends up changing. And even then, I wasn't convinced it was a worthy change, as it didn't feel organic to his personality and rather seemed to be a result of social pressures.
There's a lot going on in this book - Catholicism, existentialism, all sorts of ideas floating about. By the time I hit the book's epilogue, I wasn't really sure what to make of all of it. I loved Bolling as a character and narrator, and I wasn't really ready to see him change too much too quickly. There's a lovely little interlude about two-thirds of the way through the book where Bolling visits his mother and much younger half-siblings. This section of the book does a fantastic job of presenting the type of man Bolling might really be, what he might be capable of if he removes himself from ironic distance and social expectations. That it comes back to play in the epilogue lends the book a fragility that shows the mastery of Percy's skills.
So maybe I can't completely describe my feelings toward the book's mysterious idea of the modern man. When I have this much fun reading a book, I'm willing to be a little unsure about the ending. I'm obsessed with the prose in this book. Percy somehow manages the trick of creating a style that's sumptuous, witty, and poetic while still remaining true to the narrator's voice. I knew I was going to love this book when I hit upon this passage on page four:
My uncle and aunt live in a gracious house in the Garden District and are very kind to me. But whenever I try to live there, I find myself first in a rage during which I develop strong opinions on a variety of subjects and write letters to editors, then in a depression during which I lie rigid as a stick for hours staring straight up at the plaster medallion on the ceiling of my bedroom.
I want to kiss that second sentence, I love it so much. Better yet, there are hundreds of sentences and descriptions in this book that I want to kiss as well. I can honestly say that this is the first novel I read this year (not including re-reads) that I right-out loved. My library copy was 241 pages, but I wish it could have gone on for another thousand.
Note: Often, this book reminded me of The Great Gatsby. I think it's the delicate but capable prose that did it for me. A lot of my favorite books are short, fragile things that explore the American spirit. Also see Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.