Sunday, January 2, 2011

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Day 2 of my resolution to beat on against the current of my declining literacy features a collection of short stories by one of my favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is most famous for the above-quoted The Great Gatsby, a novel I despised when I first read it as a junior in Mrs. Tremble's American Writers class at Southeast Polk, then came to appreciate when I re-read it at Barb's urging when I was a junior at Iowa, and finally came to love when I taught it in Modern American Literature at Valley High School. I've probably read the book at least a dozen times, and our daughter Jordan's name came from the character of Jordan Baker. (I've been asked why both of our girls were named after drunken women from the 1920s. Our reasons are pretty much the same as the one Elton John gave for Levon naming his child Jesus: It was because we liked the names.)

I purchased Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons and Other Stories with Christmas money last year at Barnes and Noble. It contains three different collections of Fitzgerald's short stories: Flappers and Philosophers, Tales of the Jazz Age, and More Tales of the Jazz Age. Until yesterday, it remained unopened, sitting first on the night stand next to our bed, then on our bookshelf. My goal is to read at least one story each day. Yesterday, I exceeded that goal by completing "The Offshore Pirate" and getting about halfway through "The Ice Palace."

"The Offshore Pirate" is a fun story about a spoiled, snotty young flapper whose yacht is hijacked by a group of musicians who are on the lam after robbing their last audience of all of their valuables. The first line reads like something out of Gatsby: "This unlikely story begins on a sea that was a blue dream, as colorful as blue-silk stockings, and beneath a sky as blue as the irises of children's eyes." Great stuff, but also the kind of descriptive writing that becomes old quickly on its own.

For me, Fitzgerald's best writing happens when he lets his characters speak, and Ardita Farnum loves to hear herself do that. In Curtis Carlyle, she finds for the first time someone she actually enjoys hearing as he tells his stories of how he went from jazz prodigy to offshore pirate, and if his tales are exaggerated, that is fine, as long as they continue to be exciting.

"What an imagination!" she said softly and almost enviously. "I want you to lie to me just as sweetly as you know for the rest of my life."

Knowing how life ends up for other Fitzgerald characters like Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, it's easy to doubt that Ardita and her pirate will have the romantic life she imagines, but short stories can still leave you with some hope for their protagonists' futures, even while knowing that their chances of successfully continuing a romance based on fiction are slim.

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