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Back in the last century, Walker Percy's first novel, The Moviegoer, was languishing on Knopf's backlist. The publisher's founder, Alfred A Knopf Sr., was-according to journalist Gay Talese-"baffled and somewhat irritated" by the satiric novel, so he ordered only 1,500 copies of the first printing. When even that small number sold slowly, his irritation increased.
Knopf wasn't alone in his bafflement and irritation. Binx Bolling, the novel's protagonist, has family problems, traumatic Korean War memories, and a general frustration with modern life. He retreats to the darkness of the movie theater, where he lives vicariously through the stars on the screen. The book was an indictment of modernity told from inside the mind of a modernist. For New York sophisticates its story-despite a far-away New Orleans setting-cut too close to the bone.
But the book had its champions, including writer A.J. Liebling who, obsessed with Louisiana politics, picked up the book for its New Orleans setting. Liebling saw its greatness and recommended it to his wife, the short story master Jean Stafford, then on the National Book Award fiction panel.
Knopf had refused to submit the book for consideration, but Stafford inserted it at the last minute and pitched it to the other two judges. In March 1962, the three came quickly and unanimously to a decision: The Moviegoer would win the National Book Award for fiction, beating, among others, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey.
Today, tales of dysfunctional families and unearned wealth, post-traumatic stress disorder, postmodernism, and the dislocating effects of technology are literary commonplace, but Walker Percy's ability to incarnate these ideas and their consequences in Binx Bolling was a remarkable and mostly unprecedented achievement.
The book was prophetic: As Michael Jordan, chairman of the English Department at Hillsdale College, said, "Certainly one reason for The Moviegoer's continuing popularity is that we are all 'moviegoers' now."
Walker Percy's own story makes the achievement even more striking. Both his parents committed suicide. Percy grew up with his bachelor uncle, William Alexander Percy, a lawyer and writer whose memoir, Lanterns on the Levee, became a classic of Southern literature (and was one of Knopf's early publishing successes). Percy's constant boyhood companion was novelist and Civil War chronicler Shelby Foote. Foote pursued art but Percy pursued science, becoming a doctor.
After contracting tuberculosis while performing an autopsy at Bellevue Hospital in New York, Percy retreated to the Adirondack Mountains to recuperate, read Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, and study the Christian faith. In 1947 Percy left behind a liberal Protestant upbringing that resulted in agnosticism and embraced Roman Catholicism.
Financially self-sufficient due, in part, to an inheritance from "Uncle Will," he left medicine behind and turned to writing. After many false starts and almost 15 years, The Moviegoer saw the light of day.
That time was not wasted. "Percy had accomplished a remarkable feat," said his biographer Jay Tolson. "He had learned how to transform autobiography into fiction." And it was a particular kind of autobiography-that of the pilgrim on a quest. In that sense, said Jordan, "Percy is a Christian writer," but a Christian writer like Chaucer, Dante, Milton, and Flannery O'Connor-not one who "trades in cheap grace and sentimentality."
Sentimental Percy was certainly not. As a student of Kierkegaard, and as a doctor, he had come to doubt mankind's ability to see and rightly name its own sickness, or even to hear others who could name it. Percy came to see the novelist as modernity's last, best hope because it is, he said, the novelist who stands almost alone as the "diagnostician of the modern malaise."
The 1962 National Book Award turned Percy into a media sensation. He appeared on The Today Show in the days following the award ceremony. Host Hugh Downs asked Percy why the South produced so many great writers. Percy gave a notable answer: "Because we lost the war."
A few days later, Flannery O'Connor wrote to Percy: "Dear Mr. Percy, I'm glad we lost the War and you won the National Book Award. I didn't think the judges would have that much sense but they surprized [sic] me. Regards, Flannery O'Connor."
In the 50 years since, other honors followed for both the book and its author, including Modern Library's designation of the book as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The National Book Award also breathed commercial life into The Moviegoer, and the book has subsequently sold in the millions of copies, which no doubt would have satisfied cranky Alfred Knopf. In fact, were he alive today, Knopf might have wished he had held on to one of the original 1,500 first editions. Today, one of those copies, signed by the author, is worth about $4,000.
The Moviegoer is a great book, but some Christians may find Percy's later novels-Love in the Ruins, The Second Coming, and The Thanatos Syndrome-more accessible. In The Second Coming, protagonist Will Barrett writes that he is "surrounded by two classes of maniacs. The first are the [Christian] believers, who think they know the reason why we find ourselves in this ludicrous predicament yet act for all the world as if they don't. The second are the unbelievers, who don't know the reason and don't care if they don't."
Percy writes, "The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps ... works, grows old, gets sick, and dies, and is quite content to have it so. ... He takes his comfort and ease, plays along with the game, watches TV, drinks his drink, laughs, curses politicians ... for all the world as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying off by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him in no time at all."
Percy concludes about the unbeliever, "The more intelligent he is, the crazier he is. He becomes a professor and forms an interdisciplinary group. He reads Dante for its mythic structure. He joins the A.C.L.U. and concerns himself with the freedom of the individual and does not once exercise his own freedom to inquire into how in God's name he should find himself in such a ludicrous situation."
The Percy protagonist eventually strives for answers. At the end of The Second Coming, after Barrett has fallen in love and also come to understand more about God, he asks, "Am I crazy to want both, her and Him? No, not want, must have. And will have."