Book review: Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell

‘I want to write something new,’ F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his agent in 1922, ‘something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.’

It took him over two years to finish The Great Gatsby, the novel that would become his masterpiece and which over 90 years later is still one of the world’s best-loved books.

Blending the American author’s life and times with newspaper accounts, letters and new archive material, Careless People is the biography of a book, the extraordinary story of how Fitzgerald created a classic and in the process discovered modern America.

Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia, explores in rich and vibrant detail the relationship between Fitzgerald’s groundbreaking novel and his charismatic but chaotic ‘Jazz Age.’

The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 but Fitzgerald set the novel in 1922, the annus mirabilis of literary modernism which began with the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and ended with the appearance of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

It was also the year of the infamous Hall-Mills double murder in New Jersey in which an adulterous couple were found slaughtered, their bodies ritualistically surrounded by their love letters, and Churchwell uses the case as a major point of reference for both the novel and the Roaring Twenties in general.

And so she takes us back to autumn of 1922, when the seeds of the book were sown, to carefully reconstruct the months Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda spent in New York, living in a manner similar to that of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, the ‘careless people’ at the heart of his novel.

It was a frantic period of ‘drinking and raising hell generally,’ as Fitzgerald later confessed, a time when he was only writing an average of 100 words a day in between the parties, the drunken weekends at Great Neck, Long Island (renamed ‘West Egg’ in the novel) and the drives back into the city to the jazz clubs and speakeasies.

Fitzgerald was 26 that year and summarised their stay on Long Island as ‘a comfortable but dangerous and deteriorating year at Great Neck. No ground under our feet.’ Zelda recalled one party at which ‘nobody knew whose party it was. It had been going on for weeks.’

The Fitzgeralds finally left for Europe so that Scott could find some peace to finish his novel, most of which was written in Saint-Raphaël on France’s Côte d’Azur.

On its completion he told his editor, Maxwell Perkins: ‘I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written.’ Early reviewers dismissed it as ‘mere melodrama,’ a story that would not stand the test of time, disposable and ephemeral, a tabloid tale. How wrong they were…

In prose that reflects the lyricism of The Great Gatsby and with her masterful grasp of Fitzgerald and his world of bootlegging, partying and sexual freedom, Churchwell shows in fine style how the author was a reflection of his times.

She reveals the casual intersection of high society and organised crime, and the growth of celebrity culture, of which the Fitzgeralds themselves were the epitome.

But this is also a perceptive and fascinating exploration of the genesis of a masterpiece, mapping where fiction comes from and how it takes shape in the mind of a genius.

Whether or not you have read The Great Gatsby, Careless People is a joy, full of wit and wisdom and offering a tantalising glimpse of the exuberance of the glittering, gaudy Jazz Age.

(Virago, paperback, £9.99)