I first read The Great Gatsby when I was in 8th grade and going through a Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker phase.
Excuse me, but I just laughed out loud at that last sentence. As if any reader out there has read Ring Lardner or Robert Benchley or Dorothy Parker—or even heard of the first two for that matter. Well, boys and girls, let me tell you first about Ring Lardner, as evidence that I may be 158 years old. Ring Lardner (Ring Lardner, Sr.—his son won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for M.A.S.H. in, I think, 1970) was a sportswriter in the teens and 20s who in 1916 wrote one of the laugh-out-loud funniest baseball books ever—You Know Me, Al—the supposed letters home of a hayseed pitcher just promoted to the big leagues. I found the book in the back room of my Uncle Donald’s house when I was 10 or 11 and a baseball history fanatic. After reading it, I went through all of Lardner’s other works, most of which were funny, but none of which could touch Al.
Liking Lardner’s humor, I was in the back room of my grandfather’s house and I found a collection by one of his younger contemporaries, Robert Benchley. (For the record, I did not spend my entire childhood in the back rooms of elderly relatives’ homes. I was allowed out for Thanksgiving dinner.) Benchley, whose grandson, Peter, wrote a book called Jaws, which I believe was made into a film, was a newspaper columnist who could, in 500 to a thousand words make me think and laugh. As a boy, if I could have been given a humor column, I would have given up my dream of playing second base for the Cincinnati Reds. (For the record, as a boy I was a middling good catcher with more hustle than ability. I never played second base, although I did have a boy-crush on Joe Morgan, first with the Astros and later with the Reds.) Benchley was, in three words hi-la-rious. He was also part of the Algonquin Round Table, whose doyenne was, of course, Dorothy Parker.
I believe Dorothy Parker was one of the four or five best and funniest short-story writers of the 20th century. From “Big Blonde” to “You Were Perfectly Fine” to “The Telephone Call,” she never wasted a word and left me gobsmacked. While I could picture becoming Lardner or Benchley, her gifts were unattainable. It’s almost a shame she, like Oscar Wilde, was so witty and clever in conversation that most folks don’t read her work. I mean, at one time she was asked to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence, and she replied “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.” Mike drop moment.
After these three, I heard of F. Scot Fitzgerald and Gatsby, so I found it in the junior high library and immediately sensed I’d wandered from the children’s table to a place where grown-ups clipped cigars and sipped brandy, much as when I’d transitioned from reading “Peanuts” strips and Archie comic books into the dark world of Batman, The World’s Greatest Detective. In this case, though, I rerouted my reading once I’d finished Gatsby, which may now be my favorite novel of all time and which I’ve read probably 15 times, thankfully never in a literature class, where analysis of it probably would have left it like a patient etherized upon a table.
That’s right, 600 words ago, I referred to a Gatsby moment—I was in a store and was recognized by two people after only being here a couple weeks. Not much of a payoff, I know, but I’m no Lardner or Benchley or Parker. Or Fitzgerald.