It could almost have been any of the stories in this volume, that I pored over and re-read from about the age of eight, but maybe this is the one that most exuberantly plays with the poeticising of industrialised America. I think one of the things I learned from and loved in Fitzgerald is that the everyday is itself splendid and elevated (or can be). Just as the narrator of This Side of Paradise, his first novel, loves Swinburne, I love Fitzgerald for that lift of exuberance. What to say about this story? As you know, it follows John T. Unger, an inhabitant of Hades, a small town on the Mississippi, when he visits his friend Percy Washington’s home during a holiday from St Midas’s School, where both are boarders. Fitzgerald has fun with every element of the story. For example, the town where John and Percy alight from their train is called Fish: “There were twelve men, so it was said, in the village of Fish, twelve sombre and inexplicable souls who sucked a lean milk from the almost literally bare rock upon which a mysterious populatory force had begotten them.” In this story greed is the force that’s celebrated, with and without irony, and when greed fails, it’s disillusion that returns; that is to say, the end of the story is all about the end of stories, and coming back to lumpen life.
First published in The Smart Set, June 1922, and collected in Tales of the Jazz Age, Scribner, 1922 and elsewhere, including The Collected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Penguin Modern Classics, 1986