In today’s Read Forever guest author post, Tom Perrotta, the insightful chronicler of modern suburbia, writes of his current ‘Half-Century Reading List.” As he closes in on his 50th birthday, he’s re-reading many of the notable books that were published in 1961. Underscoring the tendency for books to continually surprise us, he’s found that a longtime favorite— Joseph Heller’s Catch 22—pales in comparison to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, which failed to impress him in his high school days.
My Half-Century Reading List by Tom Perrotta
I’m turning fifty this summer, and to mark the occasion, I’ve been re-reading some books that were published in the year of my birth. By chance, or some mysterious confluence of cultural factors, 1961 turned out to be a golden moment for American fiction. A glance at the nominees for the National Book Award of 1962 tells the story: Among the finalists are three landmark works still widely read today—Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and the winner, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—as well as books by I.B. Singer, J.D. Salinger, and Bernard Malamud. That’s a pretty impressive roster, a Camelot-era literary dream team.
The two books I’ve tackled so far—Catch 22 and The Moviegoer—are both works I first encountered way back in high school. That was over thirty years ago, for those of you too lazy to do the math, and it’s been fascinating, instructive, and also a bit disorienting to return to them after so long. One thing I can say for sure: I’m a very different reader than I was back then, and as result, the books felt completely new to me, almost as if I’d never read them at all.
I’m a more critical reader now, that’s for sure, more skeptical and a lot harder to please. I wish this weren’t the case, but that’s what happens when the thing you love becomes your life’s work. I’ve spent the intervening decades creating my own personal canon and esthetic, and as a result, my opinions have hardened. I know what I like and what I don’t—with a little more certainty than is probably good for me—and have a lot less tolerance than I used to for books that try my patience.
I wasn’t like that as a teenaged reader. Back then it felt like a piñata had cracked open, and great books just kept pouring out—The Lord of the Rings, The Tin Drum, anything by Kurt Vonnegut, The Stranger, Invisible Man, hard-boiled detective fiction, Moby Dick, My Antonia, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ethan Frome, 1984, Trout Fishing in America, Crime and Punishment, The Great Gatsby, The World According to Garp. I loved almost everything that came my way. And even in the rare cases when I didn’t, I tended to blame myself if I couldn’t make it all the way through an “important” novel. These days I’m more likely to blame the author.
I’m pretty sure I loved Catch-22 back in high school. I remembered it being funny, remembered that the main character was named Yossarian, and not a whole lot else. So I was unprepared for how plodding the narrative felt this time around, almost static, and how quickly the humor turned monotonous. It struck me that the passage of time hadn’t been kind to Heller’s masterpiece. His central conceit—the oppressive circular logic of Catch 22—has been so completely absorbed into the culture that it no longer seems surprising or even especially interesting. In a way, the book has been too influential for its own good: I’d watched too many episodes of M*A*S*H and read too many books about the Vietnam War that had borrowed from Heller’s bleak vision and in some cases improved on it. In particular, I couldn’t help wishing that instead of Catch-22, I was re-reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a far more artful, emotional, and wide-ranging inquiry into the nightmare of war. Some books are ground-breaking rather than truly great, and I’m pretty sure this is the case with Catch-22.
The Moviegoer, on the other hand, was a revelation. From the moment I picked it up, I found myself captivated. It has the hypnotic focus and seemingly effortless forward motion that I’ve come to prize in novels, and that I don’t often find. Maybe it helped that my expectations were low. I’d been underwhelmed by Percy’s novel in high school, puzzled by its large reputation. And it’s true that not much happens. The Moviegoer is basically a character study, a first-person portrait of Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stock and bond broker whose utterly conventional existence conceals a deep internal rebellion against the values and pieties of the society in which he lives. “For some time now,” he tells us, “the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.” Binx is a sort of adult version of Holden Caulfield, a deeply damaged man (there are hints that the damage is at partly the result of his experiences in the Korean War) who finds it surprisingly easy to pass as a successful and cheerful fellow until a family crisis occurs, and his refusal to “act humanly” creates a scandal. I’m not sure if Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, had Binx in mind when he conceived of Don Draper, but there’s a definite resemblance between the two characters, a kinship that enhances my appreciation for both the book and the show, and goes a long way toward explaining why the social rebellion of the 1960s spread so easily to the middle class.
One of the pleasures of being a lifelong reader is returning to the books we read in our younger days, both the ones we loved and the ones we didn’t. It’s like the literary version of a high-school reunion: everyone we meet looks different, and we’re a little different ourselves. Some of our old friends seem like strangers now, and some of the people we overlooked seem a lot more interesting than we’d realized at the time. In any case, it’s a privilege to have a second chance to make up our minds, and to measure the distance between then and now.
THE LIST—some classics (and two guilty pleasures) from fifty years ago:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961)
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961)
Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1961)
Thunderball by Ian Fleming (1961)
The Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith (1961)
TOM PERROTTA, who Time magazine called "the Steinbeck of Suburbia," is the author of six works of fiction, including The Abstinence Teacher, Election and Joe College. His novels Election and Little Children were made into acclaimed and award-winning movies. His new book, The Leftovers, will publish 8/30/11, and Kirkus reviews has called it "his most ambitious book to date." He lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
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