Review: This Side of Paradise

As a writer, the very best thing about this book was the recognition that Fitzgerald didn’t write The Great Gatsby the first time out, or even other times out.

I say that as a novelist who puts Gatsby squarely in my top ten. I think it’s terrific in terms of how much it accomplishes in how very little space, the breadth of its themes with the precision of its story.

I once wrote an essay called “In the Ring with the Bard,” partly inspired by Hemingway’s quote that he did a few rounds with several great novelists, but you’d never get him in a ring with Tolstoy. Or Turgenev. Somebody Russian. His gist was that we, as writers, wrestle with the greats.

It’s a very Hemingway way to conceive of writing. I’m happy to say I’ve grown out of it.

Still, as a writer, I sit down often and think everything has to be great.

This Side of Paradise was a nice reminder that there are a lot of different ways to do “well.” That over a career considered great there would be highs and lows.

Even Shakespeare wrote a Titus Andronicus. Which is pretty good but no Hamlet.

This Side of Paradise shows Fitzgerald’s talent even as it doesn’t reach the heights he would later in his career. It, like many first novels, shows ambition and a promise of both talent and execution. There are glimmers not just of the themes that would be explored in Gatsby, but small signs of its quality, remarkable turns of phrase and developments.

Unfortunately, it’s otherwise quite boring. There were moments where I kept going just because it’s Fitzgerald.

I’m not sure if that’s partly because of its subject matter. It’s a novel about a sad young literary man, but I don’t think it’s the first of those (and it certainly wouldn’t be the last). It partly made me lament the loss of sad young literary men, because when reading about Amory’s Princeton experiences I was reminded of the movie The Social Network and its portrayal of Harvard party scenes, and it’s not so much that we still need sad young literary men (we don’t), but it’s kind of a shame that Zuckerberg is now the leader of an organization so powerful it has changed the geopolitical world and yet shows none of the growth or self-awareness of Amory Blaine. Pretentious as Amory might have at times become, it still seemed to me like he ultimately tried to take responsibility not just for himself and his destiny (whatever that is) but also his place in the world. He might not have achieved that place in the world, but his ultimate conquest of himself is arguably the more important.

The story is fairly unremarkable. Amory Blaine (a stand-in for Fitzgerald, apparently) . . . lives. From boyhood through to . . . ruin? There’s a lot of Princeton, and a lot of literary ambitions (Amory’s, not Fitzgerald’s), and a lot of drinking and carousing.

It sags in the middle, which is where I got the impression that a lot of things I suddenly realized toward the end had occurred. Amory comes from a well-to-do family, but by the end he’s lost it all? It seemed that way. Mostly broke. Down to his last $24, at which point he decides to leave Manhattan and walk back to Princeton (?).

Thing is, as much as it’s a little blurry, it’s more because it functions almost like a sketch of what Fitzgerald would be able to achieve, and even as much as some things aren’t clear, what IS clear is Fitzgerald’s talent at writing and storytelling.

Paradise was, apparently, cobbled together from a bunch of work Fitzgerald had already created. Verse, drama, lines of doggerel poetry, that sort of thing. That he was able to pull it together to even begin to resemble a novel, and that that novel actually does have form and tell a story, is, I think, an accomplishment in itself.

It’s well worth checking out even if solely to see Fitzgerald before he wrote like Fitzgerald, and the best part of all is it’s public domain! It looks like there’s a copy for $3 on Amazon for Kindle, and paperbacks aren’t much more expensive.