For quite some time my college friend Martha and I have traded recommendations of books and authors. My wife Susan is now also part of the exchange.
I would say most of the time, the three of us like the same books. But not always.
A few years ago, Martha suggested Walker Percy, who was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916, but spent a good part of his adult life in the New Orleans area. Although he was a medical doctor, he was best known as an author.
Martha is a doctor who grew up in Louisiana, and I suspect that is what drew her to Percy.
When she suggested we try one of his books, I read “The Second Coming,” published in 1980, the fifth of six novels Percy wrote. The story centers around a middle-aged man and his relationship with a woman who has escaped from a mental hospital.
I remember it being an enjoyable narrative, with strong character development and fluid writing. I remember it also taking some effort to understand, but I enjoy that type of challenge.
Oddly, Martha went silent on Percy after making the recommendation.
That was until a package arrived in the mail from her. It contained a copy of Percy’s “The Moviegoer,” along with a terse note that said, simply, “Knock yourself out!”
In a later discussion, she allowed as to how life was too short to read something requiring that much effort. She had put it down after a few pages.
When I suggested she read “The Second Coming” as I had, she said, “please don’t ask me to read anything else by him.”
I could have reminded her she was the one who had suggested reading something by Percy, but I let it go. I put “The Moviegoer” on my bookshelf.
Fast forward to a couple of months ago. Susan asked me if I had ever read “The Moviegoer.”
I remembered the exchange with Martha and told her yes, I thought I had read it. She said it was her book club’s most recent selection.
I sent a text message to Martha and included Susan, suggesting maybe it was time she (Martha) reconsider. Maybe the three of us could read and discuss it, I said.
She was not amused, and sarcastically suggested Susan should not punish herself in that way.
I keep records of the books I read (I know, I need to get out more), so I went back and confirmed I had read “The Second Coming” in 2016. I had not, in fact, read “The Moviegoer” as I had told Susan. I remembered getting it in the mail from Martha and had gotten the two books by Percy confused.
I did, however, encourage Susan to read it, and told her I would read it as well. I even offered to be guest speaker at her book club. Surprisingly, that offer was declined.
It was not long before a couple of Susan’s friends from book club told her they had started reading it and they were struggling. I happened to be with one of them when she was telling Susan about it, and she pointedly asked, “What is it even about?”
By then I had read it, and I was happy to enlighten.
“The Moviegoer” was Walker Percy’s first novel, first published in 1961. It was acclaimed by literary critics and won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962.
“Time” included it in its “Time 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923-2005.” (Don’t ask me how they arrived at that peculiar span of time for selecting 100 books.)
Told in first person, the story is set in post-Korean War New Orleans, and centers around the main character, Jack “Binx” Bolling. He is employed as a stockbroker (what we today call a financial planner.) About to turn 30 and still single, and having experienced loss as a child and trauma in the war, he describes himself on a search:
“What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
I will not spend time here going into the plot (and there is not much of one), other than to tell you the story continues with Binx interacting with family members and acquaintances, while continually comparing and contrasting his life with that of the characters in movies he sees (hence the book’s title) – all part of his search.
His relationship with his aunt, who had a big part in raising him and who desperately wants to pass on to him the mannerliness and gentility she so values, is a focal point. And while he spends much time resisting her instruction, his affinity for her is clear.
“The Moviegoer” is at times depressing, but also has its poignant and even humorous moments as Binx carries on his search for meaning in life. While he is a long way from Don Quixote and his battling of windmills, I could not help but sense in Binx a similar higher calling.
What “The Moviegoer” is not, is a page turner. It takes no small amount of concentration not only to follow the storyline, but also what Percy is trying to convey to the reader. There is a strong existentialist theme, and if you never got into any of that, well, it might not be your thing.
It just so happens I took quite a few English classes once upon a time, and given the opportunity, I tend to geek out at stuff like this. I assure you this is the type of book on which long reports were written.
As it turned out, Susan had to miss the book club meeting when “The Moviegoer” was discussed. Based on Martha’s strong non-endorsement and the comments from her friends who had shared their challenges with it, she decided to also give it a pass.
So it’s not a book we will have in common, which is perfectly fine. As I said, Susan, Martha and I generally like the same ones and we will have plenty others to discuss.
But if anyone would not be bored to death with it, I would love to talk about “The Moviegoer” with you. I could even be persuaded to visit your book club.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at [email protected].