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Last tales from the West

Sam Leith reviews a collection of Scott Fitgerald short stories

9 July 2008

12:00 AM

9 July 2008

12:00 AM

The Lost Decade, Short Stories from Esquire, 1936-1941 F. Scott Fitzgerald (edited by James L.W. West III)

CUP, pp.296, 55

BEEN SICK IN BED FOUR MONTHS AND WRITTEN AMONG OTHER THINGS TWO GOOD SHORT STORIES ONE 2300 WORDS AND 1800 BOTH TYPED AND READY FOR AIR MAIL STOP WOULD LIKE TO GIVE YOU FIRST LOOK AND AT SAME TIME TOUCH YOU FOR 100 WIRED TO BANK OF AMERICA CULVER CITY CALIFORNIA STOP EVEN IF ONLY ONE SUITED YOU I WOULD STILL BE FINANCIALLY ADVANCED IN YOUR BOOKS PLEASE WIRE IMMEDIATELY 5521 AMESTOY AVENUE ENCINO CALIFORNIA AS AM RETURNING STUDIO MONDAY MORNING

THAT GHOST SCOTT FITZGERALD

Scott Fitzgerald sent this cable to Arnold Gingrich on 17th July 1939. He was re-establishing contact. Gingrich was the founding editor of Esquire, the men’s magazine which had published several of Fitzgerald’s essays and short stories over the preceding few years.

Work for Esquire more or less kept him afloat – which is to say, it kept him from sinking absolutely. Fitzgerald’s way of working was to incur and then service a debt. Gingrich recalled:
“The $250 we charged off against every accepted manuscript simply reduced by that amount his outstanding account with us which, while seldom much over a thousand dollars, never stayed much below that amount for very long either.” Fitzgerald would wire for advances “sometimes at night and sometimes on holidays”. “His correspondence,” James West writes in his Introduction, “suggests that he needed the guilt produced by debt to bring him to the work table.”

His wife was in an east-coast asylum. He was a terminal alcoholic. He had been struggling in Hollywood – MGM terminated their relationship in 1938 — and “whoring” short stories where he could. When he wrote the telegram above he had around a year and a half to live. “That ghost.” One of the greatest of all American writers was deep into his second act.

Most of the short stories collected here, even when they are funny, are bleak. And even when they are apparently thrown off, are artful. Fitzgerald almost never wrote bad sentences. Their preoccupations are addiction, failure, faithlessness, predation. Few are more than three thousand words or so long. This is the ideal book to leave by the downstairs loo of a self-pitying alcoholic with extremely good taste.

Fitzgerald once said that to produce short stories for magazine publication he wrote as he would normally, but inserted a saleable twist. The twists here are malicious or poignant; more often moral twists than narrative reversals. These are, for the most part, the sort of very short stories that end up not knotted in a neat bow, but staring over a precipice.

In “The Lost Decade” a writer shows up at a newspaper after years away, and a junior editor is instructed to take him out for lunch and re-introduce him to the city. “What do you want to see most?” he asks, and is told:

“Well – the backs of people’s heads. Their necks – how their heads are joined to their bodies. I’d like to hear what those two little girls are saying to their father. Not exactly what they’re saying but whether the words float or submerge, how their mouths shut when they’ve finished speaking. Just a matter of rhythm…” The man hasn’t been abroad, it turns out. He has simply been drunk for ten years. All he wants now is “to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of. And their eyes and hands.”

In the desolating “Three Hours Between Planes”, a man on a stopover calls on a girl he loved in childhood. Though now married, she has been carrying a torch for him, too – and in a wild moment of excitement their romance is brought back to life. Then she realises, suddenly, that it’s a case of mistaken identity. She didn’t love this little boy at all, but another with the same first name. She recoils. There’s nothing for him to do but return to his plane.

If you think of a novel as a whole skeleton, these are spare parts: knuckles and elbows. But, gosh, they are well hinged. Squibs though some of them are, these stories abound with casual gems of phrasing and description.

The narrator of “Financing Finnegan” – a self-reproachful story about a writer of fabled reputation who borrows incessantly against a never-delivered manuscript — returns to New York:


“There was at last time to talk about my own conscientious if uninspired literary pursuits, to visit Mr Cannon in the country and to kill summer evenings with George Jaggers where the vertical New York starlight falls like lingering lightning into restaurant gardens.”

Even if you think the over-lushness of the phrase a mistake, look at the cadence, at the unexpected exactness of “lingering lightning”, and at the chilly sense of never-never underpinning it. Lightning doesn’t linger – and nor, as the author knew, does that dreamlike New York. For pure comic felicity, here is a man introducing himself to an old acquaintance he finds dead drunk in a bar:

“Hello, good looking,” he said to Woll. “Remember me – Pat Hobby?”

R. Parke Woll brought him with difficulty into focus, turning his head first on one side, then on the other, letting it sink, snap up and then lash forward like a cobra taking a candid snapshot. Evidently it recorded, for he said:

“Pat Hobby! Sit down and wha’ll you have. Genlemen, this is Pat Hobby – best left-handed writer in Hollywood. Pat h’are you?”

No question mark after “have”; no comma after the final “Pat”. That’s how a seriously drunk man talks. You’re occcasionally brought up by a quirk of precision in the dialogue – and by its consequent strangeness. We’re used to less exact transcriptions of what people say: to conversation being less elliptical on the page than it is in reality. The most surprising thing, for me, was how much Fitzgerald sometimes sounds like Don DeLillo.

He also sounds like himself; especially when he’s writing about the very rich. “On An Ocean Wave” – one of the more obviously professional stories here, whose plot has the disinterested polish of a Saki or O Henry – opens like this:

“Gaston T Scheer – the man, the company, the idea – five feet eight, carrying himself with dash and pride, walking the deck of the ocean liner like a conqueror. This was when it was something to be an American – spring of 1929.”

The second half of this book collects the stories Fitzgerald wrote about a washed-up screenwriter called Pat Hobby — “Pat Hobby, the Writer”. A veteran of the silent age with “more credits than a dog has fleas”, Hobby is always hustling to con his way back in for a few weeks at $350 a month; or, failing that, simply to gain admission to the movie lot – which is his entire world, if only intermittently his place of employment.

Hobby is a comically bad writer. Having obtained someone else’s script (about the Russian Ballet), and being determined to alter it so as to claim a co-writing credit,

“working frantically, he made several dozen small changes. He substituted the word ‘Scram!’ for ‘Get out of my sight!’ He put ‘Behind the eight-ball’ instead of ‘In trouble’ and replaced ‘You’ll be sorry’ with the apt coinage ‘Or else!’”

After an entire morning’s work on another occasion “all he had actually invented was a single imperative sentence, spoken by a doctor. ‘Boil some water – lots of it.’” (He wonders only passingly what a doctor might use hot water for.)

These stories were in some ways practical: Fitzgerald needed to think up a schtick, to draw readers into a series, to discover a sort of Runyon/Wodehouse sitcom formula that would pay. In each story, Hobby hatches a scheme – which usually involves stealing an idea, a script credit or a hat. In each story Hobby is undone and further humiliated.

But Hobby is no Bertie Wooster. His schemes are nasty, his humiliations nastier. He tries to gull a co-writer away so he can steal his credit by faking a letter informing him that his two brothers have been killed in the war. He cheats a young office runner; a couple of tourists; an old friend; an ex-wife. He vomits in the stolen hat and “shambled towards the lavatory like a hunted man”. If Hobby is Fitzgerald’s Falstaff, he is decidedly the Falstaff of Henry IV Part II rather than Part I.

The Hobby stories may have been a handy comic schtick, but they are also a rueful serial self-portrait in a distorting mirror: a satire on everything hateful about Hollywood, but one in which Fitzgerald is himself implicated. For in Hobby’s pocket always is a half-pint of liquor. Gin beads his forehead. He has “red-rimmed eyes and a soft purr of whiskey on his breath”. At the denouement of a particularly painful story, he is publicly confronted with a clanking sack full of the “dead soldiers” evacuated from his desk drawers.

Pat’s eyes – “red-rimmed” or “red-streaked” – are described in almost every story; a sort of leitmotif, or Homeric epithet. The reader cannot help but be reminded, in parody, of the all-supervising eyes of T J Eckleburg – “blue and gigantic” – that loomed down from the oculist’s billboard in Gatsby.

Were those eyes threatening judgement? How will Pat, how will Scott, be judged? There’s an awful apprehension underpinning these stories. The narrator of “The Long Way Out” describes his horror of oubliettes: “dry wells thirty or forty feet deep wherein a man was thrown to wait for nothing.” For the protagonist of “The Guest in Room Nineteen”, recovering from a stroke, “now life was like waiting for an unwelcome train. He was very lonely.”


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