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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

A satire that has lost its edge: A Diamond as Big as the Ritz

F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story A Diamond as Big as the Ritz is a totally weird piece of writing, an early story in FSF's career that would give you no idea as to where he was heading as a writer - it's almost impossible to see Gatsby emerging from this odd tale. The one glimpse of FSF's future and talent: the protagonist, John, leaves his small midwestern town to attend an extremely expensive and exclusive school in the east, and though he's a big deal in his home town (named Hades, FSF's dig at St Paul I guess?) he's hardly a big deal in his boarding school. I have limited patience for the rich guy feeling like an outsider, but it's a driving force in much of FSF's fiction. In any event, the story starts off as a realistic tale - John befriends the wealthiest kid in the school, Percy, who invites him to spend the summer with his family in the West (Montana). From the moment of arrival at the nearest train depot, the story veers off in a fantastic direction: Percy lives in the most elaborate and ridiculous splendor in an estate so isolated that it appears on no maps and his family pays no taxes. The source of the great wealth is the enormous diamond beneath the mountain on which the estate stands - Percy's grandfather was a prospector who struck it rich. Geology aside, it's a kind of ridiculous premise, and the story veers off toward the bizarre as, among other things, we learn that the estate is managed by a team of "negroes" who are actually slaves - for some reason they are so cut off that they have been led to believe that the South won the civil war. We also learn that the estate is a prison of captivity - anyone who ventures on the land will be imprisoned and eventually executed - as Percy's family needs to keep the living conditions and source of wealth a secret. Bad news for John, but he manages to engineer a welltimed escape, just as the estate is nearly demolished by an air attack. He takes off w/ Percy's two sisters, one of whom (Kismine) he falls in love with - she's beautiful, but a complete idiot. Like many FSF characters, unfortunately, she's entirely unlikable (as is everyone in this story other than the hapless slaves): FSF treats her w/ some mockery, as when her reaction to the aerial attack on the slave quarters is that some people have no respect for private property. So what does this story "signify," if anything? That wealth is gotten and protected by nefarious means, that the Washington family that owns the diamond is no different from the Carnegies of the day or the Gateses of ours? No doubt it was then (1922) an age of great selfishness and greed - as ours is today as well. But the story goes so far off the deep end - it reminded me a bit of the first part of Dracula, a captive amid great and mysterious wealth - that whatever pointed satire FSF may have intended loses its edge.

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