I did not expect to have finished another book so soon, but it turned out I only had one chapter left of Careless People although there were another 50 pages of notes, index and acknowledgments. I had bogged down several weeks ago and only turned back to it today on a whim.
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell sounded right up my alley and at first it was. Great gossipy chapters on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and on the Hall-Mills murder. Unfortunately the connection is extremely slight. It seems fairly clear that Fitzgerald followed this and other cases, the news generally and there’s no reason this murder which happened shortly before the Fitzgeralds moved to Great Neck shouldn’t have had some influence on the book. But it doesn’t really shed any new light on Gatsby as far as I can see, but it did get me to reread it, which was good because I’d remembered it wrong and am fairly sure I did not really get it when I read it in high school.
The Hall-Mills murder is an exercise in bad police work and the worst side of journalism. Churchwell sheds no light on what may have happened, merely reports what was said about it and the egregious mess of an investigation. It took three different doctors to figure out the woman had been shot multiple times and had her throat cut. Really? I don’t have a medical degree, but I kind of think that’s something I would have noticed. Thank God for the development of forensic science. Reading of rank incompetence is always painful.
As I said, I enjoyed the beginning and it gets harder as you go along and Zelda goes into a series of institutions and Scott drinks mostly doesn’t write. A very sad story and hard to know what they could have done to save themselves. Not drinking doesn’t seem to have been something he was capable of, which is especially sad as he seems to have been fairly obnoxious when drunk. And she, in addition to being fairly crazy from the get-go, it’s hard to know what she could have done. It is clear that keeping house and cooking bored her. She doesn’t seem to have had the discipline long-term to be a writer. When she went at something she seems to have taken it to almost absurd lengths, like when she danced 9 – 10 hours every day. Although she was the quintessential flapper and very much born at the right time from that point of view, her life would have been much better I think if she could have been born later.
Would I recommend this book for someone looking for information on the Fitzgeralds? I honestly don’t know. There are many out there and how they compare I don’t know. Perhaps if I’d read them, I’d have more respect for what she’s accomplished. A number of reviewers admire her ‘lyrical prose,’ but I find her almost incoherent when she starts getting lyrical. On the other hand, I think she draws a pretty clear portrait of the Fitzgeralds, their characters, their flaws and their good points, and how Fitzgerald’s writing was viewed in his lifetime and since. So should you read this? If a portrait of the Fitzgeralds and their times appeals to you, yes, if you’re looking for new insights into the Great Gatsby, I’d say no.
This counts as History and Non-fiction. Sadly too late to count for Jazz Age January.