A recent New Yorker article by Thomas Mallon on the genre of alt history novels suggested that one of the best techniques for an author to access the misty land of a particular historical period is to read more of the writing of that time and, perhaps, less of the writing about it.
Butchertown, my work-in-progress, is not a true historical novel, but instead unfolds in a highly fictionalized 1920s California. While it’s a California of the imagination (though the real thing may be an imaginarium anyway), I hope to vividly capture and caress the details of that time and place: its sights, smells, and sounds; its dress and manners, from the highest to the lowest, from the way a woman’s silk dress clings to her calves, to how city streets are laid down.
I have, of course, already read Dashiell Hammett’s masterworks of that era (and will again), but I thought I should also read other authors from that time, great, good, and even bad.
OHHHHHH YOUTH’S PARADISE!
The first name I considered was F. Scott Fitzgerald. It may seem an odd choice—Fitzgerald didn’t arrive in California until the 1930s—but so far, it seems a right one.
The novel I chose (also my “canon novel” for 2012) was not The Great Gatsby, but Fitzgerald’s debut novel: This Side of Paradise, published in 1920 when the author was only 25. It’s considered the novel that inaugurated the Jazz Age, the era also called the Roaring 20s.
I realized from the first page I’d made something of a happy choice, not only for Butchertown, but for my general “education” as a reader.
This Side of Paradise is a modern literary novel: an episodic story of inner life, so there’s little overall plot and many small stories nestled within, all of them portraying the wanderings of the heart, soul, and mind of young Amory Blaine.
It was a very experimental novel for its time, a collage of traditional third-person narrative, passages of verse, and even a stage play.
Paradise is about Amory’s coming of-age. Blaine is a wide-eyed, energetic young Minnesotan who heads off to Princeton University in the 1910s. Blaine brims and blossoms with hopes and dreams of being a lover, a poet, a man of literature and big man on campus. But his burst and bloom crashes into heartbreak and disillusionment as he careens and bumps and romances and parties his way toward adulthood.
Fitzgerald was truly a writer of his time, but also, I think remains relevant in this one. I’m not a reader who goes looking for my mirror image in fiction, so I was surprised to find traces of the torments and dilemmas from my own youth. As I did while reading War and Peace, I sometimes wished I’d encountered this book thirty years ago (but would the insights therein have successfully infused my tumbling soul and so righted my confused course? God knows . . . .)
I’m not an expert in social history, but I’m guessing that Fitzgerald wrote at a time when the concept of “youth” as a separate, special state was first coming to the fore, at least in America. He seems to have been among the first literary writers to portray youth as a state of grace and its passing as a tragic, horrific sinking into despair, mediocrity, and death.
At the same time, while enamored of being young and alive, Fitzgerald, through Blaine, also fiercely perceives the comically preposterous, overweening vanity and deep shallowness in himself and in those around him: mainly, his campus buddies and the girls he frantically and fruitlessly loves and loses (one of whom rides a horse to its death over a cliff; talk about Dates from Hell . . .).
For all their spunk and sparkle, most of the characters—upper class whites, it needs to be said for those concerned with such things—dispel their energies in endless, furious frivolity, mostly revolving around boozing and “kissing” (as it’s delicately put in keeping with that era’s literary manners.)
When we’re young, the senses overwhelm sense: They are everything, while matters of reason remain mired in confusion. Their Princeton education seems to make little impression on few of these campus types, including Amory, though he’s also deeply conflicted about the place: He loves Princeton as a character, an ivy-covered ideal, but drops out before finishing.
Yes, youth is great. It’s also not all it’s cracked up to be. It is often, in that famous phrase, “wasted on the young.” For all our potential, as young people, many miss what they so desperately reach for. In the end, Amory is left alone, shorn of friendship, love, and his Catholic faith: “I know myself . . . but that is all,” he cries at the end, stranded on paradise's far and lonely side.
As a reading experience, This Side of Paradise is often choppy, not surprising considering its collage structure. The writing is often beautiful and strong, with lyrical passages and portraits of Princeton and its environs:
“ . . . and suddenly unable to bear walls, he wandered the campus at all hours through starlight and rain.”
There’s also an often bumptious frat party atmosphere. (You may not know this, but Fitzgerald is a very funny writer.) At one point, the wild Prohibition revels lead to a harrowing sodden adventure in Atlantic City and a more tragic one in New York.
Those kids of yesterday, I tell ya . . . .
Sometimes, though, Fitzgerald pushes his prose too hard and sinks into romantic fuzziness as he strains to make his language express the inexpressible. I sometimes got the sense that not only was Fitzgerald a frantic romantic, he was also a young man in too much of a hurry.
Curiously, since Fitzgerald was part of that “Lost Generation” of writers who lived through World War I, little of that conflict’s grim shadow falls here, as it falls in his compatriot Hemingway’s work. While Fitzgerald served in the military during the war, he wound up stationed stateside. He does have Amory serve overseas, but the narrative is frustratingly vague on what must have been, somehow or other, a life-changing experience. Amory returns almost completely unaffected and simply returns to his previous pursuit of transcendence. Maybe Fitzgerald’s imagination failed him at this point.
Among the features I like most about This Side of Paradise is how it captures the mood and flavor of its character’s time and place. I also was amused its satiric passages on campus life and the quest for status; Blaine’s literary musings; and his touching relationship with his mentor, the worldly wise cleric Monsignor Darcy.
Hence, Mr. Mallon’s advice plucked a chord, because no one quite sees the details of times past with the clarity of someone who was there, no matter how myopic they may otherwise be.
And there’s no doubt that F. Scott Fitzgerald was very much there. That he was able to write so well about his youth while still so close to it remains an achievement.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.