"Sometimes history appears to have been so inebriated that it blacked out completely, and we have no idea what a mysterious trace means at all." That's one of the more enjoyable observations in a book that doesn't stint on phrasemaking: Careless People (Penguin, $29.95), Sarah Churchwell's lavish excavation of the real-life milieu whose scandals, frolics and gaudy personalities gave F. Scott Fitzgerald the raw material for The Great Gatsby. Even when she gets most carried away by her connect-the-dots enthusiasms—or gimmickry, if you prefer—her literary "Where's Waldo?" game is the liveliest contribution to Fitzgeraldiana to come my way in years.
Since I once wrote a cranky novel called Daisy Buchanan's Daughter—and its octogenarian narrator hooted at the notion of seeing Jay Gatsby's quest as anything more than the odyssey of a lunatic would-be homewrecker whose monomania and narcissism destroyed her childhood—you may gather that my own relationship to Gatsby has its nettled side. I adore the book's prose, I'm agog at its intricate craft, I once knew it nearly by heart, and I think its view of life is hogwash. If it's the Great American Novel, then it's the only semi-secular bible of a country in a permanent state of immaturity. But no doubt you'll be glad to hear that Churchwell thinks otherwise. Her delight in everything she's dug up renews the novel's enchantments even for the Gatsby-wearied likes of me.
She provides a vivid and often witty account of all the zany, sad, ridiculous things that Scott, Zelda and their fellow Jazz Age glitterati got up to during the boozy summer and autumn of 1922 in Great Neck, Long Island—the future time and place of the fable he almost called Trimalchio in West Egg. Those antics are intertwined with an impressively researched flood of contemporary ephemera from which Fitzgerald might have plucked stray inspirations. Above all, that means Churchwell's reconstruction of the then-notorious Hall-Mills double-murder case, which held much of the country spellbound once New Brunswick rector Edward Hall was found dead next to Eleanor Mills, who'd been married to somebody else.
Essentially, Churchwell is borrowing the twofer strategy Erik Larson used in Devil in The White City: if cultural history doesn't grab you, maybe a gaudy whodunit will. Yet it's her book's least convincing gambit. While the murdered woman and her mousy husband—the likeliest perp, though the case was never conclusively solved—plainly did have points in common with the novel's Myrtle and George Wilson, the Hall-Mills case's connection to Fitzgerald and Gatsby stays too vaporous to merit the full contrapuntal treatment it gets here. Churchwell does know a good story when she sees one, though. She makes a marvelous circus out of this farrago of bumbling police work, botched autopsies, inventive "witnesses," tabloid confections accepted as fact, and souvenir hunters so crazed that the crab apple tree the bodies were found beneath eventually had to be replaced by "a stick with a black string tied about it to show where it was," as one (disappointed?) letter-writer to the New York World reported at the time.
That image spurs Churchwell to a lovely meditation on her own craft: "What is the difference between the historian and the souvenir hunter?" she asks. "Both are in search of relics, sacred objects. . . [But] all you may find is a stick with a black string tied to it by someone who got there first. History makes rubberneckers of us all." No less does history's relationship to fiction make magpies out of both novelists and the literary sleuths on their trail, and some of Churchwell's best finds are those she doesn't make too much of: that Nick Carraway's name may have been borrowed from a Senator Caraway with an unusual reputation for probity, for instance, or that "the Jordan"—as in Jordan Baker—was a popular roadster at the time. Since Nick announces himself as the only completely honest man he's ever known and his most celebrated exchange with Jordan is about her being a bad driver, the links do seem more than coincidental—and even if they aren't, "coincidence has its own beauties," as Churchwell says in another connection.
Still, how much does this sort of whack-a-mole scholarship add to our understanding of either Fitzgerald or Gatsby? A fair amount, I'd say. Even when Churchwell's specific guesses may be dead wrong, she's given us a raft of plausible speculations on the interplay between a novelist's mind and the hurly-burly around him, meanwhile reminding readers of one of Fitzgerald's greatest gifts: selectivity. Nonetheless, it's telling that one reason reviewers in 1925 couldn't see past Gatsby's surface was that its plot struck them as little more than a pastiche version of the sort of sensationalistic, sordid affair they read about in the papers every day. Because Fitzgerald transmuted dross into gold and the dross has grown fairly obscure almost 90 years later, Churchwell has done us a favor by evoking how his imagination was stimulated by all sorts of trifling current events. Better yet, her own writing is so spirited that you want her to be right about everything, even when you suspect otherwise—and come to think of it, that's a kind of susceptibility Nick Carraway knew all about.