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?