Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Review: The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Originally published 1924, Hesperus Press edition 2011)

The rather boring book cover of The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Originally published in 1924, this edition published in 2011. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in their Marmon, otherwise known as "the Rolling Junk," or "the Expenso."
Going on a cross-country road trip in 1920 would have been a rather harrowing proposition. Cars were unreliable, roads were often unpaved, and travel at night was not very safe. Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, in July of 1920 F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald struck out on a road trip from their home in Connecticut to Zelda’s parents’ house in Alabama. Ostensibly the reason for the trip was so Zelda could taste peaches and biscuits again. Thus began an eight day journey, complete with flat tires, and encounter with a bandit on the road, and an ending borrowed straight from O. Henry. 

The piece of writing that emerged out of this trip was a long article titled “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.” Fitzgerald wrote it in 1922, but wasn’t able to find a publisher for it until 1924, when it appeared in Motoring magazine. It’s not Fitzgerald’s best piece of writing, but it’s interesting to read a non-fiction piece of his where the main characters are him and Zelda. 

The Cruise of the Rolling Junk was issued as a book in 2011 by Hesperus Press, a British publisher. It features an excellent foreword by Paul Theroux, acclaimed novelist and travel writer. It also features an introduction by Julian Evans that is good, but simply too long, as Evans quotes from many of the best parts of the piece. It’s perhaps a bit much to have The Cruise of the Rolling Junk as a standalone book, as the piece itself is only about 60 pages long. However, it has never been included in any other collection of Fitzgerald’s non-fiction, so it’s good that it’s finally available. 

The “rolling junk” that Scott and Zelda were driving was a Marmon, a very luxurious automobile brand, referred to throughout the text by Fitzgerald as an “Expenso.” This is just one example of Fitzgerald’s humor, which comes across quite strongly in “Rolling Junk” and other pieces of his non-fiction. Fitzgerald smartly casts himself as someone who is befuddled by anything mechanical, which was probably very close to the truth, and a lot of his humor is self-deprecating. 

There are, of course, some beautiful passages sprinkled throughout “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.” This was one of my favorite sentences: “South we wentover little rivers and long gray bridges to placid Havre de Grace, a proud old lady with folded hands who whispered in faded dignity that she had once been under consideration for capital of the nation.” (p.43) 

On the following page there’s this gorgeous passage: “We rested only five minutesthere was sunshine all around us nowwe must make haste to go on, go down, into the warmth, into the dusky mellow softness, into the green heart of the South to the Alabama town where Zelda was born.” (p.44) 

Unfortunately, “Rolling Junk” shows off Fitzgerald’s casual racism at its worst. In most of his writing, African Americans just don’t exist, or are merely servants with a line or two here or there. In “Rolling Junk” he writes of entering a store in Virginia: “But this I knowthat the room was simply jammed with negroes and that the moral and physical aura which they cast off was to me oppressive and obscene.” (p.59-60) It doesn’t seem like such a sentence could have come from the pen of the same author who would cleverly satirize Tom Buchanan’s racism in The Great Gatsby just two years after writing “Rolling Junk.” 

Fitzgerald seems pretty out of touch with the racism of the South throughout “Rolling Junk.” Fitzgerald’s father was from Maryland, a border state that retained slavery while remaining in the Union during the Civil War. Fitzgerald’s father told him stories of troops marching through towns, and romantic stories of Southern spies. Scott absorbed the romanticism of the Southern “lost cause” without fully acknowledging that the “lost cause” was really about slavery. 

Fitzgerald must have kept this lovely sentence in his files: “After noon the humidity became oppressive sultriness, and the scattered curlicues of clouds began to solve a great jigsaw puzzle in the sky.” (p.62) He later used a very similar phrase in the short story “I’d Die for You (The Legend of Lake Lure)” written in 1935-36 and used as the title story for 2017’s collection of Fitzgerald short stories. That sentence reads: “She sat with Delannux on the side of a beached raft while the sunset broke into pink picture puzzle pieces that solved themselves in the dark west.” (I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories, p.93) 

“The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” is an interesting piece of work for fans of Scott and Zelda, but it’s best taken with a large grain of salt, as I doubt everything that Fitzgerald wrote down actually happened. But no matter, it’s still a nice piece of writing from F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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