Take Me Down to the Paradise City

This Side of Paradise
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tales of the Jazz Age come up against some tough competition in my family.

My grandmother, who stood 5 feet 9 or so and was, even when I knew her, a live wire,  allegedly won a Charleston competition, though I’ve never tried to ascertain if such competitive dancing actually occurred. She and my grandfather must have cut quite a swath in the Bronx. Their friends knew them by their nicknames:  Swat and Bullets. In our house, stories of speakeasies and rum running fell around the table like leaves in late October.

Until now, F. Scott Fitzgerald has managed to keep up.

Although my grandfather and Fitzgerald were near contemporaries, Fitzgerald occupied a perch at least a couple of rungs up the ladder from my family’s.

Dancing the Charleston. I’m pretty sure neither Swat nor Amory Blaine ever cut such a rug.

Grandma graduated high school in upstate New York and I’m certain grandpa spent even less time in a classroom. He was more a school of hard knocks guy who’d enlisted back-to-back in both the Army and the Navy. The roaring 20s found him a steamfitter– a man with his own truck. Imagine the possibilities.

I doubt the principal character in this novel, Amory Blaine, knew how to sweat a joint.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My initial contact with Fitzgerald was through his short stories. A septuagenarian literature professor at UMass whose resemblance to Robert Frost suggested separation at birth assigned Babylon Revisited and Other Stories during my lone semester there. The same prof also assigned Heinrich Bölls 18 Stories,  so he had a huge impact on my reading life.

After the stories, I read Gatsby. I’m tempted to ask “Who hasn’t?,” though I recognize that his light may no longer shine bright in the firmament. With its Long Island setting (I was certain I’d identified the actual locales of East and West Egg; I’ve never accepted the hypothesis that the novel’s true setting is Westport, Connecticut), local color and familiar cadences, it felt like truth on the page.

Things educated people typically don’t know how to do: sweating a joint
Click on the picture to learn more.

Now I can say it’s a good thing I read Gatsby first, because This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, published when he was just 24, proved daunting. The class divide–and I am always eager to discuss how the class divide lies at the root of our biggest social problems even though most Americans would rather not discuss it–is the least of it.

The entire book seems designed to make me feel stupid, in the same way a T.S. Eliot poem does. It’s not that I can’t comprehend the class of people able to attend Princeton in the first quarter of the 20th century. And it’s not that one shouldn’t expect too much from a steamfitter’s grandson. I spent my entire time with the book feeling like I was losing a gigantic struggle to understand.

You might think that’s structural. After all, the book throws everything at the wall. Our hero is a man of words whose boon companions are likewise oriented. Versifying is par for the course. There’s an entire section written like a play. In the second half, quick cuts and odd juxtapositions appear. It would be unsettling if I didn’t have reverence and real affection for John Dos Passos‘  USA trilogy.

We first meet Amory, along with his mother, in the tony mid-western precincts of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. As if to announce the imminent arrival of a new age, the Blaines have a relationship that I don’t associate with pre-World War I times. It was unusual for children to call parents by their first names in the 1970s.  What that looked like in the 1910s I can only imagine.

College fun at Princeton, circa 1910.
Photo courtesy Princeton University Archives, no infringement intended

Like many a midwesterner (more accurately, like many a character created by an author with midwestern roots who made a similar journey),  Amory ends up, first, at a prep school, St. Regis, and then Princeton. On his way east, he meets with Monsignor Darcy who reinforces Amory’s sense of his own singularity.

I’ll pause for a moment here to reflect on the Catholic angle. Blaine and Darcy are among the least Catholic characters I have ever encountered in literature, though they obviously are meant to be recognized as such. Compared with characters created by Böll and Kerouac, these two strike me as having never made it out of first-year catechism. The Monsignor almost makes me understand Henry VIIIs preferred manner of dealing with frustrating clerics.

Okay, okay. Art isn’t meant to be didactic, I get it. It’s not like Catholics were lousy on the ground in early 20th-century American letters, though. It wasn’t that long before that Mark Twain was seen indulging in some first-class anti-Catholic bigotry and the Smith presidential campaign, in 1928, would display that ugliness on the national stage.

Perhaps Fitzgerald–or should I say Blaine–is merely putting aside his childish things. I can’t imagine any WASP bastion feeling comfortable to outsiders. So maybe not making too much of your origins is strategic. I’d buy that, given the overall autobiographical feel of the entire enterprise.

Times Square in the Rain.

The novel, after all,  can reasonably be cartooned as one big mash note to  Mercer County‘s member of the Ivy League. That Blaine and his classmates are selfish insipid beings doesn’t change the fact that this is their coming-of-age story, right down to the psychological derailment of the war to end all wars.

The post-graduate, post-war sections of the novel worked better for me although I’m pretty certain the perfect girl who gets away and marries the wrong guy is a tale often told, even to the rejected suitor confronting the official news of his loss in the newspaper.

The girl crazy enough to gallop a horse off a cliff? Before I reformed, I used to say I had an unusual capacity to be attracted to the nuttiest woman in any room. Since I think the crazy woman might be Zelda, I am willing to accept amateur status in this area from now on.

So, why, why does this novel have its reputation? I think it’s the beauty of the language. I can do no better, after all this carping, than to let Fitzgerald have the final say in words I find hauntingly evocative and beautiful:

“Under the glass portcullis of a theatre Amory stood watching the first great drops of rain spatter down and flatten to dark stains on the sidewalk. The air became grey and opalescent; a solitary light suddenly outlined a window over the way; then a hundred more danced and glimmered into vision. Under his feet, a thick, iron-studded skylight turned yellow; in the street the lamps of the taxi-cabs sent out glistening sheens along the already black pavement. The unwelcome Novermber rain had perversely stolen the day’s last hour and pawned it with that ancient fence, the night.: p. 236

 

 

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