When a first novel written by a middle-aged former medical student from Louisiana won the National Book Award in 1962, neither its author nor its publisher could have predicted its ultimate fate as a work that would come to be considered nearly liturgical by a growing audience of disaffected searchers whose dilemmas the novel so uncannily portrayed. That novel was The Moviegoer. Its neophyte author was Walker Percy, the scion of an old Southern family with roots in Mississippi and Alabama, who had studied medicine at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Following bouts of what his biographer called “moral listlessness,” and suffering from exposure to the tubercle bacillus while working as an intern at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, Percy was forced to abandon the profession chosen for him by his family that called for him to be a doctor. Ultimately, Percy would consider the spiritual crisis that ensued a kind of liberation, a joyous release of his spirit into the literary realm, a world that was more hospitable to his inquiring and speculative nature, and that would eventually anoint him both pilgrim and avatar.
Percy’s debut novel, published when he was forty-five, came out under the imprimatur of Alfred A. Knopf, one of the country’s most respected literary publishers. The manuscript, originally titled Confessions of a Movie-goer, had been acquired by Stanley Kauffman, a fledgling editor at Knopf who had been hired to strengthen the house’s list of contemporary American fiction. (Appropriately, Kauffmann later became the film critic for The New Republic magazine.) The Knopfs themselves, Alfred and his wife Blanche, were high-culture Europeans who boasted of publishing the work of writers like Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Even after Percy’s novel had won the National Book Award, the Knopfs remained baffled by The Moviegoer. Its curious amalgam of popular culture and existential philosophy was not to their taste. Furthermore, they had no idea how to locate such a book in the market they served. Lacking enthusiasm and support from on high, Percy’s novel stumbled out of the gate at Knopf and earned only modest initial sales for the publisher and for its author.
But Percy’s novel, the first of what he’d later call “messages in a bottle,” finally caught a running tide. On metaphorical shores scattered around the country, a legion of readers, one by one, welcomed The Moviegoer. They read it as almost scriptural, sharing it with their fellows in acts of evangelical fervor. The novel’s main character seemed a lot like them, they thought, a man adrift in seas they found cold and inhospitable, and lacking the navigational skills that seemed to come so easily to others. Here was the spiritual kin of other literary outsiders—Camus’s affectless Meursault, Stendahl’s hypersensitive Julien Sorel, Robert Musil’s Ulrich. To this European brotherhood, Percy now added a distinctly American figure, John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling, whom his readers felt belonged to them.
On the surface, The Moviegoer is a straightforward novel, superficially conventional, telling its story with a minimum of fuss, in a voice that’s emotionally remote but candidly American. Its complexity, though, is foreshadowed early on. In a quote from Kierkegaard that served as the novel’s opening detonation, we read: “[T]he specific nature of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” Kierkegaard had surreptitiously seized a truth from the confusing fog of everyday life, a truth that explained the distance many of the readers of The Moviegoer felt, that separated them from the world around them, that distinguished their own motions from the looser motions that ruled the rest of the world, making its denizens resist the necessity of philosophical rest. Percy is warning readers that his novel’s surface has an undertow, a meaning that will pull them subliminally into its ideas, illuminating the inchoate, giving it form and substance.