Monday, January 3, 2011

"Don't treat me like a girl. . . I'm not like any girl you ever saw."

JoAnn of Lakeside Musings did a post today on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "The Jelly-Bean" from his 1922 collection Tales of the Jazz Age. She also included a link to a complete online edition. Since I love Fitzgerald I decided to check it out.

"Jim was a Jelly-bean." Despite the whimsical sound, what this actually means in the South is that Jim is lazy and a loafer. His ancestors were apparently big property owners but those days have long passed and he spent the Great War polishing brass in New York. Now twenty-one, Jim does occasional odd jobs at Tilly's garage and spends his most of his time as a champion craps-shooter. Then his old friend Clark Darrow invites him to a posh dance, which Jim, long afraid of girls, reluctantly accepts. He ends up helping Nancy Lamar, a socialite with a wild reputation, scrap gum off her shoe (by draining gasoline from a parked car so she can rub her sole in it) and later saves her from a catastrophic loss at a craps game. Despite her hard-partying ways, Jim has fallen in love with Nancy and is inspired by her desire to distinguish herself from the gauche, unstylish mob. In the end, he resolves to better himself and salvage his own reputation.

Like many of Fitzgerald's works there is a strong element of class at play in the form of an outsider interacting with people of higher status. Jim is actually of a patrician background (however distant) and still retains an image of himself as a white man from a good Georgia family. "I got an old uncle up-state an' I reckin I kin go up there if ever I get sure enough pore," he says in the beginning. "Nice farm, but not enough niggers around to work it. He's asked me to come up and help him, but I don't guess I'd take much to it. Too doggone lonesome----" Of course, this sense of entitlement is ultimately empty, as is made quite clear to Jim as he observes the fashionable dancers from the sidelines. The premise of "The Jelly-Bean" is very simple: Jim must learn to overcome his inertia. In that respect he is similar to Gatsby as a lower-class man for whom an unattainable rich woman (Nancy Lamar, Daisy Buchanan) is the catalyst for social and financial self-improvement.

"The Jelly-Bean" is also very much a tale of the Roaring Twenties, with its party setting and hidden swigs of moonshine. Though muted by the indolent haze of the Georgia springtime, Fitzgerald once again demonstrates his skill at portraying scenes of leisure and recreation.
The Jelly-bean walked out on the porch to a deserted corner, dark between the moon on the lawn and the single lighted door of the ballroom.There he found a chair and, lighting a cigarette, drifted into the thoughtless reverie that was his usual mood. Yet now it was a reverie made sensuous by the night and by the hot smell of damp powder puffs, tucked in the fronts of low dresses and distilling a thousand rich scents to float out through the open door. The music itself, blurred by a loud trombone, became hot and shadowy, a languorous overtone to the scraping of many shoes and slippers.
To me, Fitzgerald has always been the master of description. But as JoAnn observes, "The Jelly-Bean" is very dialogue-heavy once the narrative moves past the opening exposition. Still, Fitzgerald strikes the right balance and I found the vintage slang quite enjoyable: "All right, babies, do it for your mamma. Just one little seven."Altogether, it's a wonderful little story.

Jim is disappointed the next day to hear of Nancy's shot-gun marriage to shaving-razor baron Ogden Merritt. He is nevertheless determined to leave for that uncle's farm (since the old family home has since been sold) and come back to town as a gentleman. Or is he? Fitzgerald ends on a lovely, if not entirely optimistic, note.


JoAnn said...

Yes! You've captured all the ideas I couldn't quite find the words for. This is an excellent story and I know I'll enjoy working my way through the collection. Also plan to reread Tender is the Night sometime this year. It's such a pleasure to read Fitzgerald's writing.

E. L. Fay said...

I have mixed feelings about Tender is the Night. I really think I prefer Fitzgerald when he's describing things because the second part of that book - the backstory of Dick and Nicole's relationship - doesn't do anything for me, even though I know how autobiographical it was. But I loved the first part with its setting in the South of France.

Emily said...

I should re-read Fitzgerald at some point. I tore through all his stuff when I was too young/inexperienced of a reader to appreciate his descriptive finesse, so all I got out of them was a bunch of drunk people. Whenever bloggers pull quotes from his books now, I think "How did I miss something that beautiful?"

E. L. Fay said...

I can see that happening. I really need to reread The Beautiful and Damned because I think I missed a lot there too.

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