I was raised to believe that reading was a healthy and wholesome pursuit, like drinking whole milk or doing sit-ups. The hallways of my high school were papered with the American Library Association’s “Read” posters, featuring pop stars posing cheerfully with their favorite books. Next to the lunchroom, there was Phil Collins grinning in a coonskin cap, a biography of Davy Crockett open before him. Could the man who sang “Sussudio” really be wrong?
And the faith in the power of a story well-told is ancient. Aristotle taught that narrative was therapeutic. More recently, revered writers like George Saunders and the late David Foster Wallace have talked about fiction’s role as a bridge between existentially isolated individuals. Reading stories, Wallace said, “we become less alone inside.”
But reading fiction doesn’t always make us better people. Ted Kaczynski was not improved by his obsession with Conrad’s The Secret Agent, nor Timothy McVeigh by his fascination with The Turner Diaries. Mark David Chapman was not healed by his love of The Catcher in the Rye. The disturbed reader—or, in my case, the merely immature reader—won’t always be ennobled simply by cracking open a great book.
I was a sophomore in college when I first read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. You probably knew kids like me—awkward, insecure students who latch onto a favorite book or a favorite band, identifying with and fashioning a self-image from someone else’s creative act. In Binx Bolling, the troubled hero of The Moviegoer, I saw a model for the smart, droll young man I wanted to be. In fact, I was such a mess that I didn’t notice what a mess Binx was.
So I began reading The Moviegoer over and over again. I’m still going today. I have, over the years, worn out at least three paperback editions of the book, breaking the spines, defacing the pages with what at the time seemed to be insightful notes. Because the novel is set in New Orleans in the run-up to Mardi Gras, I re-read it annually in the week immediately preceding Ash Wednesday. I read it in real time—which is to say, that I read the sections of the book that take place on the Wednesday before Mardi Gras on that Wednesday, the Thursday sections on Thursday, and so on. If that routine strikes you as a little obsessive, maybe even unhinged, I won’t bother arguing.
I do it mainly because I think Binx would approve. Binx is an almost-30-year-old stockbroker making a project of “living the most ordinary life imaginable.” For Binx, this means chasing secretaries, settling down in the suburban drabness of New Orleans’s Gentilly neighborhood, and, most of all, going to the movies. Here’s how he explains it:
Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in the The Third Man.
Binx makes a kind of existential sport of moviegoing. He likes the wonder of finding himself in a moviehouse that he had visited years earlier, seeing the same sort of movie, during the same season. He calls it a repetition: “A reenactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed, in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”
So my serial re-reading is, in my mind, a kind of half-assed repetition, a nod to my hero Binx. How did he become my hero? In Binx, I saw a model for making my way in the world. He is a droll, cool camera-eye. Strolling past an aluminum rendering of the Holy Ghost at the local Catholic school, he launches into a reverie—“How smooth and well-fitted and thrifty the aluminum feels!”—because he owns a few shares of Alcoa.
It’s smartass Binx that first drew me to The Moviegoer. In his eccentric and acidly funny way, he can be awfully charming—so charming that you might overlook how mentally unstable he is. I don’t know how many times I had read the novel before it registered with me that Binx spends most of it in an insomniac fog, stumbling from one morally compromised position to another, dreading above all any kind of serious connection with the people around him.
And when he does attempt a connection, it seems doomed. He finally proposes marriage to his suicidal cousin Kate, but even Kate seems to understand the proposal as an unfortunate gesture, a death-house prank.
Writing in the New York Review of Books in 2005, Joyce Carol Oates identified Binx as one of a string of solitary, cool, self-absorbed males in American fiction—other examples including Saul Bellow’s Joseph from Dangling Man, and the narrator of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision. I took Oates’s critique as personally as if she had been questioning my own character. These were my role models she was writing so scathingly about. If they were cold, self-dramatizing narcissists, what was I?
The short answer is that for many of the years I spent re-reading The Moviegoer, I was just as confused as Binx. I certainly aspired to be every bit as cool and every bit as noncommittal. It didn’t work. It turned out to be a lousy strategy for, as the life coaches say, professional and interpersonal success. I took a Binxian approach to women, which is to say I told them lie after lie even as I assiduously pursued them. I turned my lunch hour at work into two or three hours of drinking, and I thought Binx would have been proud.
I don’t mean to suggest that The Moviegoer messed me up or corrupted me. But maybe it validated my impulse toward the passive and disconnected. It gave me permission to be the fuck-up I always thought I could be. My girlfriends, unimpressed with the literary influences behind my evasions and lies, dumped me. My bosses, with no use for an employee who disappeared for hours on end, fired me.
Re-reading is essentially a childish act. Kids are serial re-readers. Kids want to return again and again to the world they find in a particular book, to try it on for size, to imagine themselves there, to take a few laps around their alternative world before returning home. Part of the fun is knowing you can make the trip anytime, as many times as you want, and always come back safe.
One of the clichés of literature is that one really can’t read the same book twice. The idea is that with each re-reading, the reader brings new experiences, new insights, new emotional depth to the book, thus transforming it. But this credits readers with too much power and books with too little. Certain books have a way of stripping us of the emotional and intellectual armature that is commonly called maturity. One of my friends, for example, once told me that she never has been able to read Winnie the Pooh to her kids without crying.
In the years since I first read The Moviegoer, I married, became a father, and learned some of the tricks we all learn for passing as an adult in an adult world. But reading The Moviegoer annually has given me an excuse to stay in contact with my 20-year-old self. Going back to Binx’s New Orleans every year is, in fact, a little like going to a reunion: Binx and Kate and the various versions of me all getting together to check each other out and see who has thrived and who looks really bad.
One of the things I looked for in The Moviegoer year after year was some clue to what happened to Binx and Kate. The novel ends ambiguously. Binx and Kate are supposed to marry and Binx is supposed to go to medical school. The plan is for them to live a good, simple life, to “walk abroad on a summer night … and see a show and eat some oysters down on Magazine.”
But what really happens? I finally got an answer not from The Moviegoer but from another very good New Orleans novel, John Gregory Brown’s Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, from 1994. I’d already been re-reading The Moviegoer for more than a decade when I got to Brown’s book. And just as I was coming to the conclusion of Brown’s novel, I got to a passage that just about knocked me out of my chair. A stockbroker-turned-doctor named Jack makes an appearance. Some things about Jack seem awfully familiar. Jack likes to go to the movies. Like Binx, he drives a tiny red sports car. Like Binx, he’s a Korean War veteran who once lived in Gentilly. And did I mention that Jack is Binx’s real name? There’s not much mystery about it. It’s Binx, of course, making a cameo appearance in Brown’s novel.
But there’s one more thing about Jack that made me sure of his identity. Brown writes that he “had been married, but his wife had killed herself some years before.” I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite as stunned by a single sentence in a novel as I was by that one. It was like being surprised by the news of a friend’s sudden death. Except that this should have come as no surprise. I should have seen it coming all the way.
That revelation changed the way I read The Moviegoer. Now, I’m not quite as attracted to Binx’s wit, to his charm, to his antic detachment. Now when I read The Moviegoer, I mostly notice the psychic danger just beneath the surface. It’s a strange thing to mourn the loss of a character in a novel. It’s even stranger to identify so strongly with a character that you almost feel complicit in the story’s unhappy ending.
But I’ve crawled so deep into The Moviegoer over the years that it’s hard to tell where I start and where the novel begins. Have I kept reading The Moviegoer because it spoke to something in me that existed before I first read it? Or am I who I am right now because I’ve been reading The Moviegoer all these years?
If you spend enough time with a book over enough years, you may start to think it belongs to you somehow. But what if it’s really the other way around?