This story gets me every time. It’s one of those F Scott Fitzgerald tales about how shiny-looking things are really hard and nasty, and always turn to poison in the end. The action centres on a three-foot wide punch bowl, a malicious, beautiful gift. Written with his characteristic pace and style, it’s a vivid tale of social climbing, alcohol drinking, failing fortunes, and fading charm.
First published in Flappers and Philosophers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920. Collected in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Six Other Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2008
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
This humorous short story is about the blurred line between fact and fiction, and explores what happens when greed hijacks truth: “I am a publisher. I publish any sort of book. I am looking for a book that will sell five hundred thousand copies.” ‘The IOU’ was written in 1920, five years before the publication of Fitzgerald’s acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby, at a time when the author was just twenty-three years old. It remained unpublished until 2017, when it appeared for the first time in The New Yorker. At its heart, ‘The IOU’ is a story about fake news, and continues to be relevant more than a century after it was written. The protagonist is the publisher of a superbly successful book, who takes a train journey to meet his best-selling author, when, by chance, he meets the person who is the subject of the book, whose very existence discredits the story. The unscrupulous publisher grapples with the ethics at play: “I considered quickly whether I could change all the names and shift the book from my nonfiction to my fiction. But it was too late even for this. Three hundred thousand copies were in the hands of the American public.” The story is an entertaining romp of conflicted interests. And of course, the author and publisher get their comeuppance – thanks to the existence of a forgotten, but measly, IOU.
First published in The New Yorker, March 2017, and available for subscribers to read there