The Art of Unevenness
The best book I read this year might be the worst book written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m talking about The Love of the Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, and his final work, not because he suffered writer’s block or experienced a change of heart about his profession, but because he had an actual heart attack, a third and final coronary, that felled him at the age of 44.
Fitzgerald died in 1940, three years after moving to Hollywood. Estranged from his mercurial wife Zelda, he ramped up a decades-long affair with alcohol and struggled as a screenwriter, a situation not unique among other noted authors of the period, including William Faulkner and Adolphus Huxley. Adding to his worries was money; having lost the literary luster (and with it large advances) enveloping him since 1920 (when his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, caused a seismic stir among the American reading public) Scott, also failing physically, was as surprised as anyone to find himself financially teetering and seemingly without options.
But he had an idea for a book, in essence a character study of the man in Hollywood he admired above all others—Irving Thalberg, the most influential film producer of the era, first for Universal Studios and then Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. A savant at spotting talent, who created many iconic stars (Garbo, Gable, and Crawford, to name just a few) Thalberg was equally gifted at backing films (Ben Hur, Grand Hotel, The Good Earth, Mutiny on the Bounty) that resonated with the American public. So great was Thalberg’s success, and realized at such an early age, that he was deemed the ‘Boy Wonder’ of Hollywood. In this regard he was similar to Fitzgerald, who also achieved widespread fame at a tender age. Also like Fitzgerald, Thalberg was handsome and charming, blended well with all strata of society, and had a fatalistic side related to a lifetime of poor health. Thalberg, in fact, was only 37 when he died, also of a heart attack, a day after passing on the script for Gone With The Wind.
There is no doubt from The Love of the Last Tycoon (the title most believe Fitzgerald intended for the work, although it was originally published as The Last Tycoon in 1941, only to be changed with some reshuffling of the book in 1993) that Fitzgerald admired Thalberg, who he immortalized in the novel as Monroe Starh. Perhaps Fitzgerald, down on his luck and in his cups, grasped onto the wealthy, responsible, and respected Thalberg as a way to become more like the man—or at least to live vicariously through him on the page. Matthew Brucolli, the preeminent scholar on the author, hints at this in the introduction he wrote for the 1993 version: “It is meaningful that Monroe Stahr is the first hero in a Fitzgerald novel with a successful career…Gatsby’s business activities are shadowy; and Dick Diver (This Side of Paradise) abandons his promising career. But Stahr is totally committed to his work and the responsibility that goes with it. He is Fitzgerald’s only complete professional….” Brucolli continues later in the piece: “For many authors the writing of fiction is an opportunity to live another life. In writing The Last Tycoon Fitzgerald granted himself the chance to run a studio, and found that he would have run it much the way Stahr did.”
Whatever the motivation, Fitzgerald threw himself into understanding his main character, writing copious notes on Thalberg’s likes and dislikes, actions and behavior. It is these notes and others on the text that provided an outline for the famed literary critic, Edmund Wilson, a close friend of Fitzgerald’s, to complete the novel and place it with Charles Scribner & Sons, who were eager to capitalize on the author’s passing and push out a work they might not otherwise have accepted while he was alive. And rightly so, as the novel, even the first 128 pages Fitzgerald finished before his death, were not up to his exacting standards and immense talent, really a glorified first draft, where he was still playing with voice and plot and discovering his characters’ strengths and weaknesses through the writing process.
Upon this shaky foundation Wilson finished the novel, lifting (or interpreting) Fitzgerald’s notes to make a possibly sellable product. In some ways, the novel is akin to a patchwork quilt, something to be valued in the aggregate, artful in its eclectic design, and interesting in its unevenness. This disparity is what drew me into the work; its flaws provided me with teaching moments, allowing me to imagine Fitzgerald at work, struggling with choices, experimenting with language, probing characters and uncovering themes. The notes, which come with many of the later published copies, are equally fascinating, revealing an obsessive quality to Fitzgerald’s process: lists of names for characters, even the book, along with exhortations for him to write with confidence, to not be indecisive, to shed self-doubt.
I like to think that Fitzgerald, clearly at the end of his tether when he started The Love of the Last Tycoon, was trying to find his way back in writing the book, to reclaim his creative identity, even improve upon it. In this regard, his Hollywood experience, no matter how damaging to his self-esteem, had been illuminating, if not educational. Rather than look down on the industry, Fitzgerald realized there was something to be learned from how filmmakers, in particular Thalberg, succeeded. Consider, for example, this passage from the book, where Stahr (Thalberg) gently coaches Boxley (Fitzgerald), a scriptwriter, on how to capture an audience’s attention:
“Suppose you’re in your office. You’ve been fighting duels or writing all day and you’re too tired to fight or write any more. You’re sitting there staring—dull, like we all get sometimes. A pretty stenographer that you’ve seen before comes into the room and you watch her—idly. She doesn’t see you, though you’re very close to her. She takes off her gloves, opens her purse and dumps it out on a table—
Stahr stood up, tossing his key ring on his desk.
“She has two dimes and a nickel—and a cardboard matchbox. She leaves the nickel on the desk, puts the two dimes back into her purse and takes her black gloves to the stove, opens it and puts them inside. There is one match in the matchbox and she starts to light it kneeling by the stove. You notice that there’s a stiff wind blowing in the window—but just then your telephone rings. The girl picks it up, says hello—listens—and says deliberately into the phone, “I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.” She hangs up, kneels by the stove again, and just as she lights the match, you glance around very suddenly and see that there’s another man in the office, watching every move the girl makes—”
Stahr paused. He picked up his keys and put them in his pocket.
“Go on,” said Boxley smiling. “What happens?”
“I don’t know,” said Stahr. “I was just making pictures.”
It’s a shame that Fitzgerald did not get a chance to take The Love of the Last Tycoon to its ultimate end. But while the debate about Wilson’s right to finish the work and publish it in its nascent condition is an important one, I’m glad he did, only because, like Boxley, I want to know “What happens?” both on the page, and in Fitzgerald’s mind.
John McCaffrey received his MA from the City College of New York, where he was awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship from The New York Times. His stories, essays and book reviews have appeared in more than 30 literary journals, magazines and newspapers. A Pushcart Prize nominee, his story Words, first published in Fiction Magazine, was also selected for Flash Fiction Forward, an anthology containing work from some of the most noted writers of our time, including Grace Paley, Dave Eggers, and Paul Theroux.
In addition to his own writing, John helps direct a nonprofit organization in New York City, is the Interviews Editor for KGBBAR.LIT, and teaches a weekly short story class at an LGBT senior center in Queens, New York. His debut novel, The Book of Ash (Boxfire Press) is now available. Twitter: John A McCaffrey @jamccaffrey.