At my library, this weekend doubling as an early voting site, a pair of Cuban-American women in their seventies muttered darkly and gasped on seeing our “Cubanos Con Biden” poster. Because even septuagenarian Cuban-American women understand social media, they whipped out their phones as if at a sighting of blue-eyed ground-doves. For two hours we handed out campaign literature in what was basically an armed camp. No threads of violence, not even insults, unless I count the lies coming out of their mouths about communism.
Greil Marcus’ 2020 rumination on The Great Gatsby and American myth is one of my favorite recent books. Approaching Scott Fitzgerald’s novel as the ur-text for self-creation, Marcus regards West Egg as another region in The Old, Weird America, indulgent of a bootlegger whose ridiculous affectations mesmerize anyone willing to put suspicions aside. The Tom Buchanans are a thuggish presence always, a reminder that some men and women belong and some don’t and they don’t mind reminding you. “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or those other races will have control of things,” Tom explains to narrator Nick Carraway without a trace of irony, for to have a ironic sense is to recognize when you — inevitably — won’t have control of things.
I regard The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane as companion pieces. Men from Nowheresville who transforms himself through industry and an implacable will into Somebody, Jimmy Gatz and Charles Foster Kane don’t recognize or recognize faintly their hollowness; this congeries of industry and will is all they got. Think of Ronald Wilson Reagan of Dutch, Illinois. Remember every hustler, amiable and amoral, and those sainted bootstraps. Here’s Marcus in Mystery Trainon one of Fitzgerald’s prophetic passages:
No one ever captured the promise of American life more beautiful than Fitzgerald did in that passage. That sense of America is expressed so completely — by billboards, by our movies, by Chuck Berry’s refusal to put the slightest irony into “Back in the U.S.A.,” by the way we try to live our lives — that we hardly know how to talk about the resentment and fear that lie beneath the promise. To be an American is to feel the promise of a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal, of a mass of shadowy, shared hopes.
Besides a robust defense of Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation and best film, Marcus finds correspondences: the blues, W.E.B. Du Bois, a political moment when thousands of Tom Buchanans on Twitter and YouTube find audiences for their racism. Whiteness is not a color — it’s a status, an honorific conferred by the dominant race who have control of things. To the Cuban women at Westchester Regional Library last Saturday, deputized by the dominant race, my friend and I belonged to one of those other races. I see their type at Publix, at family reunions. There wasn’t a single interesting thing about them, not even their racism. Passionate intensity and all that. Even a compact, solid, woman with silver hair cropped to the skull who admitted to us she was a lesbian: even she, with her genuine sense of personal decency, could not imagine why we couldn’t support the GOP. Reminded by my friend that conservatives have signaled a re-examining of Obergefell, she changed the subject. Empathy requires imagination.
My October reading:
Hilary Mantel – A Place of Greater Safety
Greil Marcus – Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby
Pat Barker – The Women of Troy
Beowulf (Seamus Heaney)
Annie Ernaux – A Man’s Place
Annie Ernaux – Happening
Dorothy Baker – Cassandra at the Wedding
* Edith Wharton – The House of Mirth
Philip Roth – I Married a Communist
Luke Mogelson – The Storm Is Here: An American Crucible
Javier Marías – A Heart So White
Gay Talese – Thy Neighbor’s Wife
Lorrie Moore – Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?