Walker Percy's the Moviegoer at Fifty: New Takes on an Iconic American Novel

By Ciuba, Gary M. | Flannery O'Connor Review, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Walker Percy's the Moviegoer at Fifty: New Takes on an Iconic American Novel


Ciuba, Gary M., Flannery O'Connor Review


Walker Percy's The Moviegoer at Fifty: New Takes on an Iconic American Novel. Edited by Jennifer Levasseur and Mary A. McCay. Foreword by Jay Tolson. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. xxxi + 171 pp. [$48.00] cloth.

I'm glad we lost the War and you won the National Book Award," Flannery O'Connor wrote to Walker Percy when his first published novel, The Moviegoer (Knopf, 1961), was the unexpected recipient of the 1962 prize for fiction. Her reference to the defeated South indicates how closely O'Connor, no daughter of the Lost Cause, had been tracking the literary career of her countryman. When asked in a post-award interview on The Today Show why the South produced so much great literature, Percy tersely declared, "Because we lost the war" (qtd. in Tolson, Pilgrim in the Ruins, Simon, 1992, 298). O'Connor's brief letter to Percy concluded, "I didn't think the judges would have that much sense but they surprized me. Regards" (29 Mar. 1962, HB 470). Written slightly more than two weeks after the honor was given, O'Connor's fond note of congratulations makes fresh the astonishment that Percy's unassuming novel won the prize. Its high-profile competition that year included works by Heller, Malamud, Salinger, and Singer. More than five decades after O'Connor's nod to Percy's victory, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer at Fifty: New Takes on an Iconic American Novel, edited by Jennifer Levasseur and Mary A. McCay, demonstrates why readers after O'Connor have been continually gladdened by this winner of the National Book Award.

Levasseur and McCay focus the collection on three areas that have become central to Percy criticism since the early work of Martin Luschei and Lewis Lawson. After a Foreword by Percy biographer Jay Tolson and an overview by the editors, Levasseur and McCay devote four essays to influences on Percy's novel (Augustine, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Heidegger), four more to the hyper-mediated life of the title character Binx Bolling and his readers, and a final three to the search begun by the Moviegoer and followed by some distinguished fans of the book. It might be tempting to claim that these categories have become "iconic" in discussing the "Iconic American Novel" of the subtitle. However, the epithet has been employed so frequently that it seems almost emptied of meaning. As early as 2004, Gore Vidal's Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, part of the Icons of America Series by Yale University Press, registered its overuse (3). Percy was highly attuned to such linguistic devaluation. When he recognized in The Message in the Bottle how "The old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips" (Farrar, 1975, 116), he might have been describing the fate of the once-haloed "iconic."

But for all of its over-familiarity, perhaps "iconic" has never been taken seriously enough in reading The Moviegoer. For the whole novel is an exploration of iconicity- of how "iconic signs," as named by C. S. Peirce, Percy's own guide to semiotics, decay into everydayness; of how screen icons as much as southern roles can harden into mannered artificiality; of how fiction may serve as a "verbal icon," according to Wimsatt's 1954 book The Verbal Icon (UP of Kentucky), providing "not merely a bright picture . . . but also an interpretation of reality in its metaphoric and symbolic dimensions" [x]; of how ordinary life can open into eternity in the manner of religious icons, like the one that O'Connor enfleshed in "Parker's Back," like the ones that Thomas Merton, a fellow seeker with Percy and O'Connor, described as "not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light" (qtd. in Jim Forest, "Thomas Merton and the Christ of the Byzantine Icons," at jimandnancyforest.com/2005/01/merton-and-byzantine-icons/). The most illuminating essays in this collection find ways to break through any limitations associated with being an "iconic" text. They provide the cinematic "New Takes" of the subtitle, the kind of startling call to attention that Binx himself felt at the beginning of the novel when he saw his possessions as if by some original Adamic vision. …

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