(I’ve set myself a reading project; I’m going to read each National Book Award winner. Preferably in order, but The Man with the Golden Arm, the first winner, defeated me some years ago so I’m putting it off. I’ve started, instead, with Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.
Walker Percy owns a peculiar stretch of literary territory. He’s highly regarded, but receding from memory. He’s southern, urban and urbane. You won’t find any of the cornpone dialect, the love affair with the fecund land. His characters live in cities. They are (often over-) educated. They flounce around manicured backyards. They drink sophisticated cocktails. They ruminate. They meditate. They look at trees. Occasionally they fuck.
The Moviegoer, his first novel, won the 1961 National Book Award. It’s considered his best.
The novel is about ennui and malaise, the discontent of privilege, the loose disaffection that comes from middle class money. The narrator, a stockbroker living in New Orleans, floats through life seeing the world as a reflection of movies and not the other way around. Too rich to be a social climber or a schemer, and too poor to be an aristocrat or a gentleman, stuck somewhere in-between, mediocre, drifting, smart enough to see the obstacles of the world but not clever enough to find a way around them, he goes to movies. He observes the strange and often beautiful world around him. He spars with his family. He reveals little tidbits about his past. He ruminates on Southern gentility, subtle racism, New Orleans culture. There are references to heroism, the specter of the Korean War, a few jokes. There isn’t much plot. There isn’t much story. Strangely, there aren’t that many movies.
There is some beautiful descriptive writing: “The children are skiing with Roy. They blue boat rides up and down the bayou, opening the black water like a knife. The gear piled at the end of the dock, yellow nylon rope and crimson lifebelt, makes aching phosphor colors in the sunlight.”
Big things happen—people die, get married, go crazy—but it all unfolds in a glancing manner, parsed through the narrator’s disaffection. He’s bad company, but worse, sort of boring. I kept hoping for some crime, some gusto, some passion. But that would run counter to the novel of moneyed soul-sickness. Action, urgency, ambition—these don’t exist in the bourgeois novel of manners.
It’s a very fine Louisiana novel of parishes and swamps, but a disappointing New Orleans novel. The city’s sadistic, seething decadence is invisible.
Percy’s reputation is as a humorist with a dash of fatalism, but the jokes have faded with the passage of time. What’s left is a melancholy little book with a few dashes of humor. The narrator exists as a shade, opting instead for the artificial glory of the silver screen. Here he describes William Holden walking down the street: “An aura of heightened reality moves with him and all who fall within it feel it.”
Percy’s genteel, educated, but also kind of soft. There’s no wildness. There’s little danger. Because he deals with internalized psychological issues, he’s held as a better writer than the glut of southern wildmen who came just a bit later. He isn’t. I’d take Barry Hannah, Harry Crews, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor or Charles Portis any day. Percy is humane, but perhaps to a fault.
I read Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb recently, and the two novels are eerily similar. Roth’s novel follows the disassociative decline of a nobleman as the world wars ruin his family name, destroy his empire, and pulverize his lifestyle to dust. He’s left with no skills, few social connections, a mound of debts, and no future, just twilight and the coming end. The Moviegoer contains a similar gray spirit in the pages. Here’s the first line: “This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch.”
The Moviegoer came out in 1961. That same year, Borges’s Ficciones was published. Joseph Heller published his fantastic and unforgettable Catch-22. Richard Hughes published his odd The Fox in the Attic. Norton Juster released The Phantom Tollbooth, one of the finest children’s books every written. J.D. Salinger published Franny and Zooey, the beloved, if slightly overrated follow-up to The Catcher in the Rye. Richard Yates released Revolutionary Road. Murial Spark published The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Robert Heinlein published (the also overrated) Stranger in a Strange Land. Harold Robbins, Evelyn Waugh, Irving Stone, Iris Murdoch and John Steinbeck also published novels this year.
In this crowded list the National Book Award folks picked Percy’s slim and slender novel and bestowed upon it the top literary award of the day. It made his career. With hindsight, Percy shouldn’t have won. Heller, then perhaps Borges, if you have to make a list of it, and then Yates or Spark. The Moviegoer rests as a kind of elegant historical oddity. Heller’s novel is richer, stranger, more relevant with each passing year. Borges gathers more and more acolytes with the passage of time. Yates has his die-hard fans, as does Spark and Murdoch. Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize, and Evelyn Waugh, although not to my tastes, has legions of adherents.
I can’t help but wonder if Percy’s greatest contribution to American letters was helping the lonely mother of John Kennedy Toole publish her dead son’s A Confederacy of Dunces.
 A loose, unofficial sequel to The Radetsky March, one of the great novels of the 20th century.