Posted in Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Absolution (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 27)

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There once was a priest with cold, watery eyes, who, in the still of the night, wept cold tears.

The above quotation, one of the best first lines I’ve read in a while, begins F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Absolution”. Of the Fitzgerald short stories I’ve read, this one ranks as my favorite and I’m pretty sure it will make it into my Top 10 at the end of this year.


The priest’s perspective frames the story at the beginning and the end. In between, we get the perspective of eleven year-old Rudolph Miller and his father. Rudolph’s father, a devout Catholic, often loses his temper much to the detriment of Rudolph’s physical safety and his fragile psyche.

Much of the story involves Rudolph’s guilt as he lies to his father and to the priest at confession and then takes communion without confessing his “sins”. Fitzgerald’s elegant narration brilliantly captures the snowball effect of Rudolph’s inability to cover up each misdeed with another one culminating in the fear of being poisoned as the priest places the bread on his tongue.

As Rudolph heads for what seems like a breakdown, he finally tells the priest everything – not necessarily in the traditional confessional situation but in simply a one-on-one meeting. While the reader gets a hint at what the priest might be thinking at the beginning of the story, it comes as a surprise, albeit a very legitimate one, that the priest now has a breakdown and instead of giving Rudolph penance or punishment, he tells him to go to an amusement park:

“Well, go to an amusement park.” The priest waved his hand vaguely. “It’s a thing like a fair, only much more glittering. Go to one at night and stand a little way off from it in a dark place – under dark trees. You’ll see a big wheel made of lights turning in the air, and a long slide shooting boats down into the water. A band playing somewhere, and a smell of peanuts – and everything will twinkle. But it won’t remind you of anything, you see. It will all just hang out there in the night like a colored balloon – like a big, yellow lantern on a pole.”

According to Maureen Corrigan in her book So We Read On, this story has been considered a precursor to The Great Gatsby. Some minor details might point to this such as a brief mention that Rudolph is not from a wealthy family and Rudolph’s imagining himself as another person with another name – perhaps the way James Gatz became Jay Gatsby; however, if I had not been aware of this prior to reading the story, I don’t think I would have found much of a connection. The story stands on its own.

But then maybe the priest became the Gatsby character?

I read this story when I selected the Two of Spades (my second wild card in a row) for Week 27 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.




Posted in Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald: An Alcoholic Case


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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “An Alcoholic Case” rates as a departure in his writing style. Fitzgerald’s typical ornate wording gives way to a more stripped down, cut-to-the-chase manner of writing.  I make no definitive conclusion; however, after the informative biographies I’ve read about Fitzgerald (So We Read On by Maureen Carrigan) and Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson), I’m curious if this story was in some way an attempt by Fitzgerald to write like his Lost Generation cohort with whom he did not always have the greatest relationship.


A home health nurse is assigned to the case of an alcoholic and he tends to live up to the reputation alcoholics have among the nurses.  Broken glass becomes some sort of symbol whether it’s a broken bottle of gin on the bathroom floor or the broken windows in the bus the nurse takes home each evening.  Life’s brokenness and sharpness come to mind as I read the quick story – another exception to the typical Fitzgerald style.  This is probably the shortest story of his that I’ve read.

I also couldn’t help but wonder about the significance of this story to Fitzgerald’s own relationship to alcohol.  In both the previously mentioned biographies, Fitzgerald’s drinking binges were widely known and could have resulted in at least a few lost relationships in addition to contributing to his early death at the age of 44 (this story was published in 1937, three years prior to his death).


In Hemingway’s Boat, Paul Hendrickson quotes one of Hemingway’s letters in which he laments his public’s expectations of writing longer novels as opposed to novels like The Old Man and The Sea.  At least ten years after Fitzgerald’s death, Hemingway wonders if this had any impact on Fitzgerald’s downturn as a popular author as The Great Gatsby was a short novel, also.  With a typical mean stroke (even after Fitzgerald was dead), Hemingway says:

“…I will bet it did more to wreck poor old Scott than anything except Zelda, himself and booze.”

Because I prefer Fitzgerald to be Fitzgerald and Hemingway to be Hemingway, “An Alcoholic Case” may not be my favorite of Fitzgerald’s stories, but it was worth reading. Also, if one is looking for the light, fun and sentimental Fitzgerald, try his earlier stories – this one does not fit that mold:

She knew death – she had heard it, smelt its unmistakable odor, but she had never seen it before it entered into anyone, and she knew this man saw it in the corner of his bathroom: that it was standing there looking at him while he spit from a feeble cough and rubbed the result into the braid of his trousers.  It shone there…crackling for a moment as evidence of the last gesture he ever made.

I selected this story for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project when I drew the Five of Clubs.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

Willa Cather: Paul’s Case


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Willa Cather

Smokey Robinson once sang “…a taste of honey’s worse than none at all”.  Based on her short story “Paul’s Case”, I would bet Willa Cather would have agreed – although, she would probably say a taste of “money” is worse than none at all.  I read this story for Week  6 of Deal Me In 2015.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

I had several of Cather’s stories on my Deal Me In 2013 list.  While I enjoyed some of them, others left me a little flat.  Her stories that are set in Nebraska or the Southwest were beautiful and intriguing to me.  In spite of my infatuation with New York City, her stories involving artists in the Big Apple at the turn of the twentieth century just didn’t grab hold of me.

In the case of “Paul’s Case”, though, Cather does something different with New York City.  Paul, a teenager, lives in Pittsburgh and is somewhat of a delinquent at school.  He loves serving as an usher at Carnegie Hall so that he can rub elbows with the rich and famous – both the patrons and the performers.  His awe of the rich lifestyle contrasts with his contempt for his lower income neighborhood and school.

Cather simultaneously casts a small spark of sympathy for Paul’s situation (or “case” as the title suggests) and a repulsion for Paul’s attitude and character.  By less than noble means, Paul manages to run away to New York City and live the high life – for a little while.  As with many teenagers, Paul doesn’t realize that there is such a thing as a future and that his means will eventually run out:

It was characteristic that remorse did not occur to him.  His golden days went by without a shadow, and he made each as perfect as he could.

Since I’m on an F. Scott Fitzgerald kick, I’ll bring up the fact that Maureen Corrigan, in So We Read Onindicates that Fitzgerald “adored” Willa Cather.  Corrigan even goes on to say that some of the characters in The Great Gatsby were inspired by characters in Cather’s stories (Corrigan bases this on letters Fitzgerald wrote to Cather).  Paul in “Paul’s Case” has some definite Jay Gatsby attributes; however, I would guess that Gatsby ultimately gets more reader sympathy than Paul does.

Posted in Non Fiction

So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan


I’ve never seen other people at the grave, but always there are tributes: flowers, coins, and miniature liquor bottles.  This book, too, is a kind of tribute, though Fitzgerald, surely, would rather have had the booze.

Maureen Corrigan’s book So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures is truly a wonderful tribute.  Those who love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby can’t help but get caught up in her passion for the book; however, even those who might not be a fan of Gatsby but are still avid readers will appreciate Corrigan’s love of literature and excitement over the continuous discovery that reading brings – and “discovery” is perhaps the best word to describe this book that is part literary analysis, part history and biography, and part memoir.

The reader experiences Corrigan’s trip to the deep, dark basement of the Library of Congress to spend a few days leafing through original Fitzgerald letters and drafts and it’s as adventurous as a treasure hunt.  The nostalgia is easy to feel as she makes a trip back to her Catholic High School in Queens to see what students think of Gatsby, now.  She makes a great case for Gatsby’s initial boost in popularity (it was a flop when it was first published) arising from the Armed Services Edition paperback versions distributed to the troops during World War II.

While her portrayal of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald is sympathetic, Corrigan doesn’t sugarcoat their lives nor bypass their faults and hardships.  She mentions a group of staunch Zelda supporters who blame Scott for Zelda’s tragic life; however, Corrigan doesn’t seem to fall into that category, herself.  I found it interesting that, while she might have respect for Ernest Hemingway as a writer, she doesn’t respect him as a person.  Her research reveals Hemingway’s continuous condescension toward Fitzgerald later in their relationship.  By Corrigan’s standards, Fitzgerald was much better friends with Ring Lardner.

Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and she also has been instrumental, along with the National Endowment for the Arts and local public libraries, in establishing the “One Book, One City” programs throughout the United States.

If I could think of a dream job, it would probably be doing research for a book like this.

Posted in Non Fiction

The Guns of August – The Funeral and Plans

In what could be considered a departure in my reading, I began Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Guns of August this month.  In part, because of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I and in part, because I’ve realized that I know very little about The Great War as opposed to World War II.   In picking a favorite time period for fiction, I would have to say early twentieth century; however, my knowledge of one of the major events of that time period is severely lacking.  In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s earlier short stories and The Great Gatsby, though the War doesn’t take center stage, it’s something everyone is “coming back from”.


Tuchman begins the book brilliantly by using the May 1910 funeral of England’s King Edward VII to give the reader a snapshot of Europe, in particular, and the world, in general, at that time.  Nine monarchs ride in the processional representing most of Europe – many of them are also related in some way to the King.  No longer President, Theodore Roosevelt attends to represent the United States.  By using documented incidents in flashback form, Tuchman gives the impression that the wheels are already turning in the German Kaiser’s head as to how more power could be obtained for his country (or for himself).  While maintaining a public demeanor of confidence, the other European monarchs have private fears of German hegemony (I had to look up the word “hegemony”.  Learning a new word is always a good thing).

Tuchman proceeds to the section she calls “Plans”.  I’m sure I am sounding a little naïve when I say that I was surprised at how the countries of Europe, especially Germany, had such detailed plans for war so far in advance.  Germany knew that any war would have two fronts for them – the east with Russia and the west with France.  France seemed to be Germany’s primary foe but if they invaded France, they knew Russia would become involved.  It had not been that long since Russia had been at war with Japan (another war I know little about) so Germany counted on Russia taking longer to mobilize.

Without turning the book into “historical fiction”, the author rounds out all of the players and keeps the reader involved wondering what might happen next – even if the reader might be more familiar with this part of history than I am.  At this point, Belgium and it’s King Albert have caught my interest and the “cause” of the War’s outbreak comes as somewhat of a surprise even if this is the one event that I am familiar with.

I am taking this book slow so The Guns of August will probably run into September for me.  Look for another post in a week or so.


Posted in Fiction

I still like “Gatsby”…

‘They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn.  ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’

Beautiful words describing shallow people.  This seems to be the consensus of many readers of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel The Great Gatsby.   They’re not wrong.  His characters of the Jazz Age have major flaws and many are not likeable.  After several decades since reading it the first time; however, Nick Carraway’s above words jumped out at me.  Something about Jay Gatsby makes him great.  Maybe it’s the way he stares across the water at the green dock light.  Maybe it’s his new-fangled yellow automobile.  Maybe it’s his naïve idea that money can buy him love.  Or perhaps it’s just the way he calls everyone “old sport”.  Regardless of the reason, I’m glad Carraway got to say those words to him.

And speaking of Nick Carraway, he’s one of my favorite side kicks.  He’s the quintessential observer – ever so slightly detached that one thinks maybe he’ll get away from Gatsby’s tragic circumstances only partially scathed.  At least one hopes.  His moral compass isn’t completely broken.

The greed that undergirds the bright lights and the big parties can make this a tough book to admire.  By the end of my second reading, I’m convinced Fitzgerald is not attempting to glorify corruption.  He’s taking a snapshot of the world in which he lived.  A world where greed outshines the empty eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.


Posted in Short Stories

The Lees of Happiness by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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The final short story from my 2013 Deal Me In project is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Lees of Happiness”.  In somewhat of a departure from the other Fitzgerald stories I’ve read this year in Tales of the Jazz Age, this one has real people with real problems.  Even if it contains a little melodrama and sentimentality, I enjoyed it for the fact that the characters show a depth of humanity and responsibility that doesn’t frequently appear in Fitzgerald’s 1920’s “lost generation”.

Jeffrey Curtain, a budding writer, marries Roxanne, an actress.  They move to a Chicago suburb  with the proverbial house with a picket fence.  They move in social circles that are typical of Fitzgerald’s characters; however, tragedy strikes when Jeffrey suffers a blood clot in the brain and becomes essentially “brain-dead”.  Most of the story revolves around Roxanne’s sacrificial giving of her life to taking care of Jeffrey.  There are those that criticize her for continuing to maintain her marriage – those that tell her that Jeffrey wouldn’t want her to “waste” her life this way.  I would not say that Fitzgerald is attempting to take a stance on the “right to die” issue, by any means (nor am I attempting to do that with this post).  I think he just wanted to show one human being committed to another for better or worse, in sickness and in health.

While I still consider The Great Gatsby one of my favorite books, I am well aware of the shallowness and decadence portrayed in that novel.  I think Fitzgerald, himself, was aware of the situation and that’s why he wrote the novel.  But I’m glad he wrote a story like “The Lees of Happiness”, also, showing humanity with something more.

Posted in Short Stories

The Jelly-Bean by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Happy Thanksgiving!  The short story I read this week, “The Jelly-Bean”,  by F. Scott Fitzgerald doesn’t have a Thanksgiving theme. The title brings to mind a different holiday, but the story isn’t about Easter, either.  The term Jelly-Bean is given to men who don’t have money and don’t work.  The more pleasant term used in the story is “idle”.  The story is set in Tarlton, Georgia so maybe Jelly-Bean is a southern expression, too.


The Jelly-Bean’s name is Jim Powell, who unexpectedly gets invited by a wealthier acquaintance to a – you guessed it – party.  This is Fitzgerald, after all.  Foreshadowing The Great Gatsby,  Jim encounters Nancy with whom he is madly in love.  Of course, she is in a different class than he is.  Jim’s stroke of luck is just that.  He knows how to role the dice in crap-shooting.  With his luck, Jim manages to gain a passionate kiss from Nancy.  The reader, along with Nancy and even Jim, knows that’s all it is – one kiss.

The stories I’ve read so far from Tales of the Jazz Age have been just short of brilliant.  The possible exceptions would be “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “A Diamond As Big As The Ritz” – both of which I read before blogging. I think Fitzgerald’s elaborate writing style lends itself better to novels than short stories.  Sometimes the stories seem to skip over needed detail – detail that could have been better expressed in a novel.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ve enjoyed the commentary from Fitzgerald, himself, at the beginning of the collection.  He indicated that this story was his first “collaboration”.  He needed someone with a Southern experience and it just so happened that his wife, Zelda, grew up in the South.  I was reminded of Zelda’s background not too long ago when I watched Woody Allen’s film, Midnight In Paris – his humorous film version of the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation.

Posted in Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Porcelain and Pink

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Whenever I think of the 1920’s, two things come to mind:  the Charleston and bathtubs with feet.

A bathtub with feet literally takes center stage in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “Porcelain and Pink”.  Within the story, there is a play that makes up most of the story.  During the play’s two scenes, the actress who plays the character, Julie, is on stage in a bathtub.  In the first scene, Julie interacts with her sister, Lois, who refuses to get her a towel.  In the second scene, Julie interacts with Lois’ date through the bathroom window (he can’t see her and actually thinks she is Lois).  The play, itself, which makes up the story, just isn’t that interesting.

The interesting, and in some ways genius, aspect of the story, is the few comments the reader gets regarding the audience.  The big question asked by the audience is whether the actress playing Julie actually has any clothes on while she’s in the bathtub on stage.  The reader, or at least this reader, didn’t really care what the actress was wearing; however, imagining the inquiring minds of the audience was rather humorous.

Creating the story about a play allowed Fitzgerald  to portray the envelope-pushing raciness of the 1920’s culture without actually making the story envelope-pushing and racy.

I’ve enjoyed the sense of humor Fitzgerald has put into these Tales of the Jazz Age, but they don’t have the same brilliance found in The Great Gatsby.  I can tell it’s hiding in there somewhere, though.

Posted in Fiction

John Steinbeck: The Winter of Our Discontent

There is something exceptionally real about Ethan Allen Hawley – real to the point of frightening.

Hawley, the protagonist in John Steinbeck’s novel The Winter of Our Discontent, finds that honesty isn’t paying the bills or giving his wife and children a few extra luxuries.  Coming from a once-prominent family in a small New England town, Hawley sets in motion a plan to regain some of his family’s wealth and prominence at the cost of his principles and integrity.  I think what made Hawley so real was Steinbeck’s ability to provide him with an innocent sense of humor in the face of his not-so-innocent moral choices.

The Winter of Our Discontent

The Hawley family goes back several centuries making American History an important part of the novel.  Steinbeck brilliantly compares and contrasts the dreams and realities of America two hundred years ago with the dreams and realities today (the novel is set in 1960).  A beautiful passage occurs when Hawley is going through the attic of his family’s house to find information for his son’s essay on why he loves America:

I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain.  The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing.  We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is.  So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.

I found fascinating that Steinbeck uses Easter Sunday and the Fourth of July as backdrops for the action in the novel.

Some of the themes and concepts Steinbeck brings out are similar to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby (“the old sport”) made choices in achieving his version of the American Dream just like Hawley.  Gatsby and his world seemed larger than life, though.

There is something exceptionally real about Ethan Allen Hawley – real to the point of heart-breaking.