TITLE: On Booze
AUTHOR: F. Scott Fitzgerald
PUBLISHED: New Directions Pearl 2011
PAGES: 86 pages
READING TIME: 5 hours (this was spread out over the course of two days)
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work is always hit or miss with me. I never name him as a favorite, but I do always keep him on my list of highly-regarded writers. I’m not sure why, though, since I think I much prefer reading about him and Zelda and Scottie than I do his actual work.
I can’t really articulate what makes one F. Scott story better than another. The stories I like have spirit and soul and rhythm; the stories I don’t like feel very 1- or 2-dimensional. They’re also intangible in a way that his best stories aren’t: I can’t taste them or hear them or have any kind of sixth sense about them.
Given that I’m so hot and cold about Fitzgerald’s work, it makes sense that a small collection of his essays, stories, and notebook fragments would leave me feeling unaffected. I couldn’t read all 86 pages in a single sitting. Most of the collection is dull, and I don’t particularly understand how the stories lend themselves to a Best Of collection; but there are hidden gems in this small volume of work, as there always are with Fitzgerald.
The thing about F. Scott is that when he gets it right he really gets it right. Hemingway once described Fitzgerald’s talent to be “as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.” That’s it. His best stories are natural. They leave you in awe of how something so beautiful could come from the work of man and not magic.
On Booze is a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best drinking stories. It’s F. Scott’s experience of “The Jazz Age” in all its boozy and rambunctious glory. Booze, of course, fueled his work and was his downfall. His lifelong alcoholism led to an early death, and greater fame than he experienced in life soon followed. While The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night are now considered to be masterpieces of American literature, they met with little success in his lifetime, which forced him to resort to selling his soul to write more commercial stories for money.
But of his booze stories, I really enjoyed his reflection on insomnia from December 1934 called “Sleeping and Waking.” In this essay, he traces the start of his insomnia to a single mosquito. He begins by explaining “that every man’s insomnia is as different from his neighbor’s as are their daytime hopes and aspirations,” and that the “natural” onset of insomnia begins in one’s late thirties. F. Scott encountered the mosquito that started his insomnia on a night after arduous work left him ready to fall into bed. “It is astonishing how much worse one mosquito can be than a swarm” he writes. “A swarm can be prepared against, but one mosquito takes on a personality—a hatefulness, a sinister quality of the struggle to the death.” His night was spent trying to hide from or hunt the mosquito so he could have peace.
According to F. Scott, that single mosquito ruined his sleep for good: “I think of that night, two years ago, as the beginning of my sleeplessness—because it gave me the sense of how sleep can be spoiled by one infinitesimal incalculable element. It made one, in the now archaic phraseology, ‘sleep-conscious.’ I worried whether or not it was going to be allowed me. I was drinking, intermittently, but generously, and on the nights when I took no liquor the problem of whether or not sleep was specified began to haunt me long before bedtime.”
He had developed methods, traditions, practices to help him fall back to sleep during the dark hours between “the first sweet sleep of night” and “the last deep sleep of morning;” each one as tired as he is. There are the worn-out dreams he tries to revisit, the pacing about the house, the luminol pills…no effect. He’s left to face the regret, hopelessness, and waste of a sleepless night: “I am a ghost now as the clock strikes four.”
The clock striking four, I must assume, has great significance here. A poem by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska calls it “the hour from night to day./The hour from side to side./The hour for those past thirty.” A TED Talk from a few years ago even explains the mystical quality of the hour. F. Scott himself, in what is considered his masterpiece, leaves Jay Gatsby to wait for a lover who never shows at 4 o’clock in the morning. To an insomniac, I wonder if 4 a.m. is a reminder that the relief of day is on its way—for F. Scott, it’s when he can finally sleep.
“Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker has climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits—from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.” — From the story “My Lost City”
“I am ashamed to say that my Catholicism is scarcely more than a memory—no that’s wrong it’s more than that; at any rate I do not go to the church nor mumble stray nothings over chrystaline beads.” — From a letter written to Edmund Wilson