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Book Review: Tales of the Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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There are eight short stories, a novella, and two pieces masquerading as one-act plays in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 collection, Tales of the Jazz Age. Some of them are quite good; all of them are at worst interesting and narrated with style. None of them measures up to The Great Gatsby, but then how many works of fiction do? Two years earlier he had published with critical success his first novel, This Side of Paradise and a collection of short stories, Flappers and Philosophers. The stories in this second volume of stories were in some cases earlier pieces, in some cases new pieces published in magazines like Smart Set and Vanity Fair after he had made something of a name for himself.

The stories are divided into three sections: “My Last Flappers,” “Fantasies” and “Unclassified Masterpieces.” Each title in the table of contents is followed by a short paragraph from the author by way of introduction. Sometimes their tone is deprecatory and ironic, sometimes more straightforward. One has to wonder how seriously to take them. At the end of the table, Fitzgerald offers his apologies for what he calls this “impossible Table of Contents.” Still the voice of these introductory passages is very similar to the voice of the narrator of the stories.

With a nod to Brad Pitt, no doubt today the most famous story in the collection, if not the best, would be “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” This of course, although quite different in many respects from the film, is the story of a man born in his seventies who lives his life backwards. It is a nicely imagined tale that focuses on the problems in human relationships when faced with abnormality. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” another of the stories in the “Fantasies” section deals with a school friend’s visit to the isolated home of a classmate who claims his father is the richest man in the world and owns the diamond of the story’s title. It is an early treatment of the theme of the corrupting effect of wealth and power so deftly to be handled in Gatsby. “O Russet Witch” is the story of a mild mannered man who chooses convention over romance, and “Tarquin of Cheapside” is a weak historical tale with a surprise ending.

Of the stories in the “Flappers” section, the most accomplished is “May Day,” a story that contrasts the hedonism of the wealthy young college grads and those who emulate them with the commitment of reforming socialists and other members of the working class. It is a portrait of the self centered and spoiled that ends tragically. “The Camel Back” is another example of the same kind of wasted privilege, this time in a comic vein, as the central character shows up drunk to a costume party dressed as the front end of a camel.

Two of the stories are closet dramas, little plays meant to be read rather than staged. More often than not these are poetic dramas: classic examples are works like Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and Browning’s Pippa Passes. “Porcelain and Pink” is comic turn on mistaken identity set in a bathroom where a young lady is taking a bath. “Mr. Icky” from the last section is a comedy filled with non sequitors which the author suggests, in the final stage directions with what one assumes is tongue firmly cheek planted, “can end at this point or go on indefinitely.”

Fitzgerald is at his best in these stories when he is chronicling wasted lives, whether because of pampered selfishness and excessive indulgence or lack of the courage to go after one’s dreams. Merlin the anti-hero of “O Russet Witch” ends up by discovering the truth about his life: “He had angered Providence by resisting too many temptations. There was nothing left but heaven, where he would meet only those, who like him, had wasted earth.” Even selflessness does not make for a worthwhile life. At the end of “The Lees of Happiness,” a woman who has devoted her life to her comatose husband and the man she might have found happiness with find that “life had come quickly and gone, leaving not bitterness, but pity; not disillusion, but only pain.” There is for Fitzgerald a fine line between wasting your life and living effectively.

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