Button Pushing

Why Fitzgerald would hope you walk out of Benjamin Button and read "Crazy Sunday" instead.

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Hollywood can chew up and spit out both you and your work.
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If you’re not overly familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary output, you might deduce that it’s perfectly natural for a Fitzgerald story to give rise to a positively Gump-ian movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Thanks to its box office haul, critical idolatry, and stash of Oscar nominations, the film has become one of those Fitzgerald touchstones that double as a kind of authorial typecasting when we think of his legacy.

 

People commonly view Fitzgerald through the myths that grew up around his life and work. Like The Great Gatsby, a book everyone reads in high school as The Great American Novel, in 10th-grade teacher speak; and maybe This Side of Paradise, which tends to get written up as the purest novelistic distillation of the college experience. Then there’s the biographical tales of drink and excess, fortune won and fortune squandered, the crazy wife, a dystopian Camelot all around. And now we have the very-loosely adapted film version of Mr. Button’s saga, one which marries up Fitzgerald and the multiplex like the pages of the story itself were meant to be smeared with popcorn grease.

But if the sentiments expressed in his letters are any indication, the Fitzgerald who worked his ass off in Hollywood, who failed over and over again, who was humiliated many more times than that, would tell you that Benjamin Button the film is pure treacle. He’d probably then go off on a bender, but not before first giving you the pages of  “Crazy Sunday” — a Fitzgerald story that hardly anyone reads, and the ballsiest piece of Hollywood fiction ever written. If you want a Fitzgerald Tinseltown experience at the level of true art, go for “Crazy Sunday” — and it’s probably best not to make any plans for immediately afterward, as the yucks and the beer don’t flow so easily after you’ve set aside the story of 28-year-old continuity writer Joel Coles.

Fitzgerald wrote “Crazy Sunday” in 1932, when he was supposed to be working on an autobiographical piece about his return to Hollywood for his latest screenwriting venture. A lot of the big boys of American 20th-century literature took a turn out West. Hemingway and Faulkner made a decent go of it, but Fitzgerald managed just one screen credit — an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s Three Comrades that was overhauled by the studio brass, resulting in a series of pleading, defensive letters from Fitzgerald that he was a good writer, no matter what anyone said. He was also good at making a spectacle of himself, as when he allegedly vomited in the MGM commissary upon seeing the cast of Tod Browning’s Freaks — an assortment of dwarves, pinheads, and bearded ladies — having a meal. But as he went deeper into his Hollywood career, parting with whole chunks of his self-esteem along the way, a stronger, braver artist emerged, as if Fitzgerald had shorn away those parts of the self that keep most people in check — like a sense of fear, for starters. Invited to a party given by hotshot producer Irving Thalberg and his wife, the famous actress Norma Shearer, Fitzgerald performed a woeful song about a dog to a room of professional entertainers. He was hooted and hissed at and poured into a cab in what could have been a real movieland comeuppance.

If only. Instead, the experience jump-started “Crazy Sunday,” a story with — you guessed it — a screenwriter who sings a drunken song at his boss’s party, and, additionally, some violent sex play and pretty creepy revenge tactics. It’s also a funny work—members of the psychiatric profession don’t fare too well here — which only amplifies the reality of its various horrors. Coles sings his song, somehow gets invited to another shindig with his boss’s wife, beds her — but only because she wants revenge on her husband for having an affair with her best friend — and, post-bedding, learns that the traveling husband’s plane crashed. Coles runs out the door saying that he’ll be back — although he never will — once he realizes that his lady friend only wants him to stay so that she can pretend her dead husband is still alive and screwing her over in a new way — psychologically, this time. What fun!

This is not a story that would go over well in an MFA workshop, and it didn’t go over well with Fitzgerald’s advisors or the magazine folk of the time. Harold Ober, Fitzgerald’s agent and a friend who constantly lent him money over the years, said flatly that the ending needed changing. No one would go for it —  it was too downbeat, too abrading, too vague, too sexual. It is certainly as unblanching an ending as any I’ve encountered, and it’s one formidable mirror. You don’t feel great about yourself when you get to the conclusion of “Crazy Sunday,” because it lays you bare, too — as someone who, like these characters, is neither entirely moral nor a complete blackguard, an individual likely to opt for self-preservation in instances when self-sacrifice would be better, and self-sacrifice at other times when self-preservation would be easier. It’s the human amalgam, and Fitzgerald wasn’t going to compromise its complexities. A lot of us could act like these people, given the circumstances. The Saturday Evening Post — one of Fitzgerald’s prime venues — said the story “didn’t get anywhere or prove anything,” like it was supposed to be some empirical foray with a hypothesis and a tidy concluding statement, the prose equivalent of that hummingbird you see pressed up against the glass in the final frames of Benjamin Button. Fitzgerald ignored everyone. He sold the story for a pittance to H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, and its life of general neglect began.

“Crazy Sunday” is short, but I have a hard time getting through it in one sitting, although it’s not something you read in drips and drabs. Like Keats’ “Nightingale,” a poem Fitzgerald said he couldn’t read without weeping, it’s a haymaker to the soul, and I’m sure that’s why it turns some people off. Plus, it’s such a departure from the Fitzgerald that most readers know, since they tend to focus on his early works, the fantasies and the college romances and the flappers getting their hair bobbed and mixing with boys. Those stories had broad arcs to them, with endings that had firm resolutions, all neat and tidy. Conversely, “Crazy Sunday” simply ends. The incidents that make up life, which cause us to grow or regress, tend to be like that, and rarely are they interrelated in some vast web of narrative like that of, say, Benjamin Button up on the big screen. I’ll take the imposing finality of “Crazy Sunday” any day: This portion of reality has concluded. Thank you.27 February 2009

 

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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