Under the Glittering Monocle, a Bruised Eye


By Tim Bowling

Did you grow up moneyed? Parents in the professions, perhaps? Maybe you grew up in the neighbouring town to mine – in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, where the bored kids of the rich threw house-wrecking house parties, committed break-and-enter for kicks, sniffed cocaine off pool tables and beside swimming pools, cruised into my hometown to pick fights and call us trash. Maybe after smashing things, you eventually retreated into your money or your vast carelessness; maybe you got off F. Scott-free without even attending the inquest.

If Tsawwassen, British Columbia in the 1970s was East Egg, Long Island in the summer of 1922, then Ladner, British Columbia was somewhere between the Ash Heaps and Nick Carraway’s little house where he lived with the “consoling proximity of millionaires.” Ten miles of deadly, winding road connected our coastal towns, with Tsawwassen — once dubbed “the whitest community in the province” — sitting up high on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Georgia and Ladner half-sunk in mud and marshes along the mouth of the Fraser River. The actor Tom Selleck, of Magnum PI fame, owned a mansion in Tsawwassen in the early 1980s. Inside the mansion – inside! – was a heated swimming pool. My parents had a 1,200-square-foot bungalow in Ladner. Inside the bungalow – well after midnight – was me reading The Great Gatsby for the first time. I can still see the little yellow light of my bedside lamp from here, forty years away. Lights at the ends of docks, no matter the colour, green or otherwise, were too numerous to note. My people were salmon fishers who scraped an insecure subsistence living from the mercurial bounty of the muddy river flowing past our doorstep in huge heaps of ashes. My father mostly read tide books; my mother read index cards of canning instructions and recipes. Both had dropped out of high school sometime in the 1930s/early 1940s to work. Neither could ever relax about money.

I hated Tom and Daisy and Jordan right off at the same time that I loved Fitzgerald’s love of their milieu. Nick? I trusted him without reservation, seduced by the quality of his voice. Also, he seemed a lot like a Ladner kid at a Tsawwassen house party. Are these people for real? Maybe I should go before the cops show up? Nick, leaving the Buchanans’ mansion, feels that he ought to telephone immediately for the police – that innate morality seemed much more river than ocean, so to speak. As for Gatsby, he seemed almost like someone who could have been a salmon fisher, if you squinted hard enough, a hundred or so pages before Fitzgerald gets around to saying that he’d been a salmon fisher. A kind of natural modesty combined with that hint of toughness and out-in-the-elements reaching.

Of course, it’s hard to recall the first impressions that a great book has on you, but I’m 100% certain that the love angle struck me as insignificant, beside the point, despite the fact that I was no doubt physically and emotionally lonely. I’d kissed girls, but not often, and I’d never had a serious girlfriend. But even at sixteen, I thought Daisy was ridiculous. Was all that stuff about polishing the butler’s nose supposed to be charming? She seemed bodiless, sexless, which, I eventually learned, was more or less the whole point of flapper hood, and for all sorts of complicated social reasons. I was much more likely to fall in love with one of Thomas Hardy’s female characters, perhaps even Arabella Donn, who uses the castrated parts of a pig to seduce Jude the Obscure. Nothing obscure about that kind of thing. I could easily imagine one of the Greek girls in gumboots on her lunch break in back of the cannery . . .

We read where we come from more than where we’d like to be. Nothing about Gatsby’s life impressed me except for his rags-to-riches story. To start off in Ladner near the bottom of the economic ladder – and then to achieve enough wealth to lord it over any Tsawwassen snob! Jesus, why did he have to go and throw it all away on a woman who was obviously an airhead? That was my first response to the plot. And after thirty-five years and twenty re-readings, my first response, although it’s been complicated by experience and by a greater understanding of Fitzgerald’s intentions, hasn’t changed much. Daisy’s still irrelevant. That’s not a sexist remark, merely a literary fact. Fitzgerald showed a greater fidelity to Zelda, after all, than most so-called liberated men of 2017 (and women too) show to their partners. But The Great Gatsby is all about yearning for the immaterial. Fitzgerald, dogged by Catholicism, was almost appalled by the physical, which likely explains the legendary vagueness of Gatsby’s characterization (go on, describe an eternal smile). How do you make the spirit carnate? Tom Buchanan, Myrtle Wilson: sure, they can be fleshy and lustful; they’re obvious sinners. But Gatsby doesn’t sweat, he doesn’t wear the same shirt twice, and he always, according to Daisy, looks so cool. An advertisement of a man. Hell, he doesn’t even get into the swimming pool; he just lies on a pneumatic mattress, which wasn’t any kind of mattress I’d ever heard of the first time I read the novel. Maybe, I thought, they had such things up in Tsawwassen or in Vancouver’s British Properties. If someone in Ladner had owned a swimming pool, they’d have had to labour to keep themselves afloat in it. Imagine George Wilson going for a quick dip after pumping gas all day. Harder to imagine than Daisy Buchanan in childbirth (how on earth did that little girl happen? Gatsby himself couldn’t believe in Pammy’s existence, and he was right there in the room with her. Fitzgerald, too, messed up the actual birth date of this minor character, not surprising when you consider that he and Zelda used to slip their own actual daughter gin so that she’d sleep while they went out and partied all night).

But manual labour and the imagination have no relationship in either Fitzgerald’s life or his most famous book, at least not a relationship a working-class kid can take seriously. The Buchanans don’t work at all; Jordan Baker plays golf; Nick does something financial in an office; Gatsby takes mysterious phone calls; and Fitzgerald himself knocked off commercial short stories at $3,000 a pop for The Saturday Evening Post. In 1924 alone, he made nearly $20,000 from the sale of eleven stories. Even when his literary star had dimmed and the Depression had set in, his desperate last resort wasn’t to hire out as a manual laborer, but rather to go to Hollywood and write scripts. In 1938, MGM paid him $1,250 a week for his services, more than enough for my writer’s family of five to live on comfortably nearly eighty years later. In fact, one of the most enduring myths of Fitzgerald’s decline (and Nathanael West’s too, for that matter) concerns his finances – from the time he was twenty until his death at forty-four, the man made at least five times more per year, every year, than a university professor. Yet critics continue to write, in apparent ignorance of the appalling irony, that Fitzgerald was never rich! Only those who have never known want could say that $85,000 in 1938 writing corny dialogue for the film industry wasn’t incredible wealth. Sure, Fitzgerald always fretted about money, but that wasn’t because he didn’t have any; it was because he lived way above his means – not the same thing at all, at least not to a salmon fisherman’s son.

And then there are those glib, meant-to-be-funny articles he published at the height of his fame: “How to Live on $36,000 a Year” and “How to Live on Almost Nothing.” Fitzgerald had an excellent sense of humour (it’s apparent everywhere in The Great Gatsby), but looking past the obvious irony of his money articles, you can still see and smell the essential privilege. Joking about how much to pay the servants isn’t funny for the servants, and Scott and Zelda routinely hired people to clean for them and watch their child. Let’s get one thing straight: if you grew up in the class that I grew up in, it would never even occur to you to pay someone else to pick up your dirt and change your own kid’s diapers.

But somehow Fitzgerald felt the sting of the possibility of want, if not outright poverty. His father’s failure in business and the family’s consequent reliance on his mother’s money made him painfully conscious of the relationship between wealth and social status (just as a similar combination of events would later affect the young John Cheever, a writer who admired Fitzgerald greatly). So, even if the wolf at Fitzgerald’s door was mostly toothless and docile, it was yet a wolf, enough of one that Fitzgerald could credibly depict George Wilson’s desperate need to buy one of Tom Buchanan’s cars.

Ultimately, it was – and remains – the main reason why The Great Gatsby speaks so powerfully to me: there exists the dream world of love, advertising, nationhood, the future’s promise, prose style, and there exists the cold reality of calloused hands, sore backs, debt, and, finally, no editors or agents willing to help a fellow out with cash advances whenever the wolf pawed desultorily at the Riviera’s French door.

I have no idea what it would mean to read The Great Gatsby as a person who’d never lived with the constant expectation of failure and financial ruin, to read it as if my Tsawwassen parents had bought me a first edition in dust jacket for Christmas because I’d handed in a report card with a passing English grade and not as if I’d borrowed a flimsy paperback from the Ladner public library and had to keep an eye on the return date because I couldn’t afford the overdue fees.

The world hasn’t changed much since 1925 when Fitzgerald’s masterpiece appeared. In the most important way, it hasn’t changed at all. Power is corrupt and money talks; the unethical elites inevitably win and the good guys, flawed though they are, wind up with dismal unattended funerals in the rain. The workers of the world, at least, know all this, and know it much deeper in the flesh and bone than Fitzgerald ever did. Yet Fitzgerald somehow understood that worker’s relentless, rat-like gnawing for escape into a life free of financial anxiety, and managed to embody that desperate longing in a language as rich and ineffable as the dream itself. How he managed the magic trick must always remain mysterious, beyond all critical explication, “incommunicable forever,” but the green of that famous symbol isn’t trite or threadbare or even complicated for the majority of humans on the planet who’ll never know what it means to relax until their own little heap of ashes is dumped in the Potter’s Field of ignoble, everyday aspiration.

One Comment

  1. Glen Sorestad
    Posted July 24, 2017 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    A wonderful essay, Tim. You’ve made me want to find my dog-eared copy of the Fitzgerald novel and re-read it again. Mind you, I’d be constantly being impinged upon by images of Tsawwassen and Ladner, along with my memories of Burnaby in the 1940s. Anyway, it’s a masterful piece of writing, Tim.

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Tim Bowling

Tim Bowling's twentieth book, a novel titled The Heavy Bear, was published this spring by Wolsak and Wynn. Born and raised near Vancouver, he has lived in Edmonton for the past twenty years.