Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Moviegoer

I just finished another of my annual readings--my 21st? 22nd? I’m not sure--of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, probably the greatest novel ever written about a stockbroker’s search for meaning during Mardi Gras. It’s not a crowded field, I know.

In honor of the occasion, I have a post at Notre Dame Magazine’s new site that tries to explain why I’ve been reading the same novel over and over for a couple decades now.

It’s weird the way readers can sometimes feel so proprietary and protective of the novels they love. Ever had the experience of recommending your favorite book to a good friend and being disappointed when they don’t love it quite as wildly as you hoped? On the other hand, it’s also strange when every once in a while I meet another fan of The Moviegoer. Yes, it’s nice to connect with another like-mind, to know that there are other members of the club out there. But there’s also a little undercurrent of rivalry, too, as if we're in competition to see who has a firmer claim of ownership on the book.

Anyway, here's a little of The Moviegoer, including my all-time favorite literary description of a gas station:
I awake with a start at three o'clock, put on a raincoat and go outside for a breath of air. The squall line has passed over. Elysian Fields is dripping and still, but there is a commotion of winds high in the air where the cool heavy front has shouldered up the last of the fretful ocean air. The wind veers around to the north and blows away the storm until the moon swims high, moored like a kite and darting against the fleeting shreds and ragtags of cloud. . . Across the boulevard, at the catercorner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants, is a vacant lot chest high in last summer's weeds. Some weeks ago, the idea came to me of buying the lot and building a service station. It is for sale, I learned, for twenty thousand dollars. What with the windfall from Mr. Sartalamaccia, it becomes possible to think seriously of the notion. It is easy to visualize the little tile cube of a building with far flung porches, its apron of silky concrete and, revolving on high, the immaculate bivalve glowing in every inch of its pretty sytrene. (I have already approached the Shell distributor.)


  1. Your piece makes me wish you could track down the professor who first introduced the novel to you. Wouldn't it be cool to be that professor and learn that an item on your assigned reading list had been experienced so powerfully by a student? That's the lifelong impact you live for when you teach, I'd imagine, but you almost never get to hear about it.

  2. Siren, you make a good point. And in fact, I've been in touch with that prof a few times over the years, though not so much lately. So all respect to Hugh Egan, who I read somewhere was now teaching a class about madness in American literature--Poe, Plath, and Cuckoo's Nest, among others. I wish I could take that class.

  3. "immaculate bivalve." Nice language.

    I wonder if the reading list for the madness in American lit class is available online? That would be fascinating.

    *Sigh.* Because I need more books in my to be read pile.

  4. Unfocused, I'm right with you on "immaculate bivalve." It's wonderful and it makes me shake my head and grin whenever I read it. But what really makes it for me is the way he kind of earns that almost religious, transcendent language by bringing things back down to earth in the next sentence with his wry little parenthetical, "I've already approached the Shell distributor."

    I'll have to see if I can find the madness in American literature syllabus.

  5. That is a wonderful snippet. I've never read The Moviegoer but I have a similar fondness for John Fante's "Dreams From Bunker Hill". I read it once a year and it feels like MY book. I don't even recommend it to people anymore because I don't want to discuss it...I just need my yearly fix.

  6. I'm always puzzled when I meet (even virtually) someone who is fond of Walker Percy's first novel. Because I love all the others, but never could work up a liking for that first one. My favorite is Love In the Ruins, followed closely by The Last Gentleman.

  7. Lass, I know what you mean about not wanting to discuss. And I can imagine especially with Fante, because his fans consider him so unjustly neglected, there might be the urge to evangelize for him. Jeanne, thanks for speaking up for the Moviegoer opposition.