A big Mysteristas welcome to Steve Liskow, author of Hit Somebody, and a two-time winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Last Laugh
Going back at least as far as Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the major mystery plots involves the person who is finally proven innocent of wrongdoing. Scott Turow and John Grisham have financed their golden years with the same story, and Harper Lee’s masterpiece turns the story on its head by having Tom Robinson unfairly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
Critics often change their minds, too. Think of artists whose work flopped at first. Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, for example, or Picasso’s early work.
Or The Great Gatsby.
I grew up in the Midwest and earned a BA in English without having read any Fitzgerald. In the summer of 1970, I saw the film Getting Straight, starring Eliot Gould and Candace Bergen, and a major plot point involved Gould’s oral exam for his Masters degree. The characters mention The Great Gatsby and one professor voices his theory that the book is about repressed homosexual desire between Nick and Gatsby. Gould thinks the idea is ridiculous and fails his exam.
Curiosity led me to find The Great Gatsby at a local library. Over the next thirty years, I assigned the novel in every American Lit class I taught and probably re-read it twenty times. I even told classes in the early nineties that Quentin Tarrantino structured Pulp Fiction based on what he learned from Gatsby (OK, so I lied. I write crime fiction).
Now the book is widely regarded as a classic, but when it appeared in 1925, it was Fitzgerald’s first and most spectacular failure. H. L. Mencken called the book “a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.” He was more generous than most of his colleagues. Isabel Paterson wrote, “What has never been alive cannot very well go on living; so this is a book for the season only.” The New York Evening World called it “A valiant effort to be ironical,” and the St. Louis Dispatch suggested changing the title to “Ten Nights on Long Island.”
The year Gatsby appeared, Fitzgerald made as much from the novel as he earned for publishing a short story in the Saturday Evening Post. He died in 1940, having earned $13.13 royalties for the book…while unsold copies of the first edition languished in a warehouse.
The only positive review, which appeared eight years later, was Gertrude Stein’s prediction to TIME Magazine that Fitzgerald’s work “will be read when many of his well known contemporaries are forgotten.”
In the late 40s, the book was adapted as a radio play heard by one of the Scribner sons, who discovered his company owned the copyright…and found those books in the warehouse. A 1949 film starring Alan Ladd revived interest. There have been at least three other films, a musical play, and who knows what else since then, and the book has sold over 25 million copies. Scribner now sells roughly a half-million copies a year, including eBooks, and it’s a safe bet not all them go to schools.
Nearly 100 years after its publication, this is still one of those novels aspiring writers should read to learn techniques most teachers can’t show them. Look at the two paragraphs of description atop page eleven: active verbs instead of forms of “to be,” vivid imagery. Even though it’s a static scene, Fitzgerald gives you the impression action is taking place. Look at his use of overlapping flashbacks. And his brilliant use of the unreliable narrator (most people miss Nick’s bias even though he reminds us that he’s wealthy. He has affairs with two women during the book…after coming east to escape another affair back home). When Fitzgerald shifts the point of view in chapter 8, most people don’t even notice that he’s violated the book’s structure because he’s so subtle about it. Look how logically he sets up the mistaken belief that leads to Gatsby’s end. It wraps up the subplots in a veil of irony.
And listen to those elegiac closing paragraphs…
Fitzgerald’s brilliance is that he calls attention to none of this, but he pulls out and reinvents technique—always in service to the story—to hold the fragility of the American Dream and unrequited love in a tragic but sympathetic glow.
All in 189 pages. Some of William Faulkner’s sentences feel nearly as long.
A former teacher, actor, and director, Steve has been a finalist for both the Edgar and the Shamus, and has won the Black Orchid Novella Award twice. Hit Somebody, published in June, is his twelfth novel and he has also published nearly twenty short stories. He is a mentor and panelist for both Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and conducts writing workshops in Connecticut. Visit his website at www.steveliskow.com and like his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/steveliskowcrimewriter.