F. Scott Fitzgerald’s long-lost account, The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, follows Zelda and Scott on an eventful road trip in the 1920s.
In the early 1980s Fitzgerald fans were given a surprise treat when a last, lost batch of his short stories was published. The previously uncollected stories in The Price Was High were a mixed bag. All were written for money, the latter ones to pay off huge debts. Fitzgerald’s heart, one suspects, was not in some of them, and yet in the better ones he is clearly writing from the heart. In both cases the stories cost him something, often too much. The unfortunate paradox is that aficionados are glad of such suffering in their idol; indeed we long for them to suffer more, as suffering begets masterpieces. Would Fitzgerald have bequeathed the same sumptuous legacy if he had been stripped of his demons and rescued from declining sales, penury and alcoholism?
We can be delighted all over again with this new publication from Hesperus Press, The Cruise of the Rolling Junk. They surpass their remit of restoring “unjustly neglected” classics; for many, this obscure little Fitzgerald tale is not only forgotten, it is completely unknown (the adventure is reduced to only a couple of lines in Matthew J. Bruccoli’s authoritative biography, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur). The other surprise lies in its tone and its type. The Cruise of the Rolling Junk is the chronicle of a car-trip the Fitzgeralds made from Connecticut to Alabama, a 1200-mile quest for the biscuits and peaches Zelda sorely missed in her home in the north. In a 1934 letter to his editor Max Perkins, Fitzgerald described it as “a long, supposedly humorous account of an automobile journey.” Alarm bells should ring with “supposedly humorous” as Fitzgerald’s comic fiction was rare and so unpracticed, and therefore all too often patchy (his failed play The Vegetable springs to mind). But this time he got the balance just right. We would still rather he fulfilled that famous boast he penned in his notebook – “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy” – but as an entertaining diversion, Junk hits the mark.
This is mainly because everything that can go wrong on a (1920’s) road trip does go wrong. Along the way the Fitzgeralds are tested by convoluted guidebooks, misleading signposts, freak weather, scornful Samaritans, and patronising mechanics (even one crazed highwayman), and experience one automobile calamity after another. This is inevitable as the car is a clapped-out second-hand Marmon, which Fitzgerald nicknames an “Expenso.” Added to this litany of disaster—in fact aggravated by it—is the frequent humorous bickering of the recently married couple: Zelda the bad map-reader and Scott the awful driver. This, together with his self-professed ineptitude with all things mechanical, renders Fitzgerald refreshingly self-deprecating. It is nice to be invited to laugh at him for his misfortune, not pity him.
The book entertains, but it also works as a barometer to measure the social and cultural climate. Whole stretches of landscape they traverse and townsfolk they meet have been scarred by the Civil War. It is 1920 and so there is also evidence of the Great War—although, curiously, Fitzgerald makes no mention of his time as a soldier stationed in Alabama. More regrettable is his condescending attitude towards black Americans. Mercifully such interludes are rare but when they raise their ugly heads the self-deprecation is squandered and replaced by smug superiority. Naturally the effervescent wisecracks fall flat. But then we are up and running again, being overtaken by “flivvers,” regaled with family anecdotes and topographical detail and wondering if the Junk is going to hold out and get them there in one piece.
Fitzgerald’s driving may have been as reckless as his prejudices but his writing is consistently engaging. Better still, there are flurries of gorgeous prose that could have been cribbed from those great novels:
To be young, to be bound for the far hills, to be going where happiness hung from a tree, a ring to be tilted for, a bright garland to be won – It was still a realizable thing, we thought, still a harbor from the dullness and the tears and disillusion of all the stationary world.
Other chunks, equally lyrical and with greater hints of impending tragedy, foreshadow the themes, textures and cadences of The Great Gatsby. (Fitzgerald detractors may over-analyze Fitzgerald’s Eureka-moment which instigates the trip – ‘Then a wild idea came to me and paraded its glittering self around’ – and see it as representative of a superficial author and the frothiness of his work; the rest of us will simply appreciate its guileless frivolity.)
But more revealing is how the writing presages the fate of the two protagonists. There is a point where the Fitzgeralds are out of funds and have to wire for an emergency loan. Meanwhile the Junk is on the verge of giving out for the last time. It reads like slapstick but of course we know that the pair of them were about to embark on their colossal spending spree and from then on would be heading for a mightier crash, one which would up the playful squabbles to drunken fights and wreck them emotionally as well as financially. Thus Fitzgerald unwittingly blends pathos into his comedy and his writing is all the richer for it.
The Junk reflects another realm of disappointment, namely Fitzgerald’s chequered history with magazine publishing, and by extension, his professional success in general. He had high hopes for his 25,000-word article but found his hopes dashed when the Saturday Evening Post rejected it. In the end he had to hack away eight thousand words for it to be serialised by the inferior Motor, who paid a paltry $300 and published it two years after its completion.
But at the least the narrative has a happy end. The Fitzgeralds rattle into Montgomery, their journey’s end, feeling jubilant and guilty after a day of “speeding, bribery, toll-dodging and obtaining help under false pretences.” The last laugh—Zelda’s parents not being home to greet them but in fact in Connecticut, off to pay the Fitzgeralds a surprise visit—is a generous touch of creative licence, but it would be churlish to grudge Fitzgerald this after such a lively read. The Cruise of the Rolling Junk is a rediscovered gem that sparkles with a wit that would only reappear years later in the Pat Hobby stories. His account bumps along at a jaunty pace, and if a wheel occasionally falls off it is always in the prose, never in its telling. Fitzgerald was a bad driver but reading this reminds us again how expertly he could craft and steer his writing.
There is only one problem with this book, and it is a serious one: Hesperus Press has whetted our appetite and raised our hopes. But now, surely, that is it, we have read all there is, and so there can be no more surprise treats.