For a long time, whenever someone asked me what my favorite book was (an occupational hazard of being a book critic is that people ask this question a lot) I had an immediate and simple answer: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. My love affair with Gatsby started early; I probably read it for the first time when I was 11 or 12 and read it again every year until I was in my 20s. Yes, I was a precocious reader, but I also had a good reason for diving into Gatsby. Fitzgerald had lived in the town where I grew up—West Egg in the book, Great Neck on the map—and used the town as the setting for his 1925 book. Great Neck in the 1920s was a playground for writers, actors, and other luminaries: Fitzgerald ended up there at the recommendation of his friend and mentor Ring Lardner, and other boldfaced names had homes in the pretty town on the north shore of Long Island just across the Queens county line. The town had definitely lost its glamour by the time I grew up, but it had the things that make people like my parents want to raise families there: excellent schools, an easy commute, and an air of easy affluence which carried over from Fitzgerald’s era. And Great Neck was proud of its literary history: there was even a short-lived restaurant called Great Scott! in the center of town when I was a child.
Picking up the book again, now that a lot of my critical writing is about crime, I see Gatsby in a new, noir light. The incursion of noir themes into the book makes contemporaneous sense: Dashiell Hammett published The Maltese Falcon only five years later in 1930, and the magazines like Black Mask where many noir writers got their starts were already extant. Though the heyday of American noir was in the economically depressed 1930s and the war-ridden 1940s (which is also when the term noir was coined), Fitzgerald presciently wove many noir elements into the book that would be his greatest success. A simple definition of noir holds that the hero is morally compromised and haunted by the past—that’s the book’s protagonist, Jay Gatsby, without question—and that crime will be an element of the story. That’s Gatsby too. Gatsby also works with novelist Laura Lippman’s wonderful summation of noir, a world where “dreamers become schemers.” Jay Gatsby, like his creator, is both dreamer and schemer. Fitzgerald’s writing might be soft-scrambled rather than hardboiled, but the argument for a reading of Gatsby as noir is complex and compelling.Fitzgerald’s writing might be soft-scrambled rather than hardboiled, but the argument for a reading of Gatsby as noir is complex and compelling.
As a 1920s wunderkind, one of the figures who defined that decade of American raucousness and prosperity, it’s notable that Fitzgerald is a master of exploring and capturing nostalgia. He is wistful about how quickly the present becomes the past even as it’s happening. As his career and his troubled personal life progressed—with his wife, Zelda, a beautiful and wild southern belle very much like the character of Daisy in the book descending into severe mental illness—Fitzgerald would have even more reason to dwell in happier times. The doomed affair of Gatsby and Daisy (who lives across the water in the tonier East Egg, Sands Point on the map) before the war permeates the novel. Gatsby has made his fortune obliquely and constructed his life so that he might see—or better yet, have—the now married Daisy again. And though there is crime, deception, and tragedy at its heart, Gatsby is a complex mixture of optimistic and pessimistic, as was Fitzgerald himself. The book’s famous ending, with the narrator, Nick Carraway, looking across Long Island Sound from Gatsby’s lawn to East Egg where he sees the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, is a moment of complicated nostalgia: “And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” This is the instant nostalgia characteristic of Fitzgerald, which is also a component of noir: the idea that the past is inescapable and deterministic is a distinctly noir trope. Noir goes hand in hand with nostalgia, where people, like Gatsby, are haunted by pasts they’re desperately trying to outrun or escape.
A central question of the novel is just who is Jay Gatsby? Nick dutifully reports the rumors he hears around town and his encounters with the man himself. He is a mobster who made his money in bootlegging. He is associated with a shady character named Meyer Wolfsheim, who may have been behind the scandal of the fixed 1919 World Series. Gatsby himself says, “I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West—all dead now. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all of my ancestors have been educated there for many years. It is a family tradition.” Nick is sure Gatsby is lying about Oxford (or Oggsford, as Wolfsheim says), and when he asks what part of the Midwest he’s from, Gatsby says, “San Francisco.”
It’s common in noir to lie about the past and to be haunted by it, as Gatsby is: he is particularly fixated on his brief affair with Daisy, and has bought the house in West Egg where he throws enormous parties hoping she will walk through his door and back into his arms. Thus Gatsby—and Gatsby—is both obsessed with retrieving the past and keeping it hidden.
Noir is often about approaching or transgressing social mores, also a major theme of Gatsby. Daisy’s husband, the dull and boorish Tom, is having an affair with the wife of a mechanic who lives in Queens (or the ash heaps, as it’s described in the novel). In the course of the novel Daisy too starts having an affair with Gatsby, intoxicated and seduced by his years of longing for her.
In fact, everyone in Gatsby is on the make: even our clear-eyed narrator Nick gets involved with a woman named Jordan Baker, a professional golfer who might have a penchant for nudging the ball the right way. Thus the noir rudiments are all there—doomed affairs, deception, transgressions, and secrets.
Gatsby portrays a world of outsiders, and criminals of all classes. It is peculiar that Gatsby is not classified as a crime novel, since crime is at its essence: both the mystery of Gatsby’s past and the source of his money are nefarious, and in the course of the novel there is a murder which may or may not be an accident. Tom’s mistress is killed by Gatsby’s car with Daisy driving. Not long after that, Gatsby himself is murdered, his body floating in the swimming pool, and Nick is left to sort out the mess in Gatsby’s wake.
Gatsby is a canonical book in American fiction, studied by students who are asked to debate the moral issues raised in the novel. To wit, in season two of The Wire there is a scene of a prison book club, presided over by crime writer Richard Price, discussing Gatsby. D’Angelo, the Wire character participating in the discussion, is both a criminal and a man haunted by his past. When Price quotes Fitzgerald’s observation that there are no second acts in American life, the prisoners balk: to a man in prison, the promise of a second act is essential. D’Angelo gives his interpretation of the end of the novel: “Boats and tides and all. It’s like you can change up. You can say you’re somebody new. You can change your life story. But what came first is who you really are, and what happened before is what really happened. It don’t matter that some fools say different because the only things that make you different are what you really do. What you really go through…Gatsby, he did what he did. Because he wasn’t ready to get real with the story, shit caught up to him.” This too is a valid noir interpretation of the book: it is the story of a man whose past determined his present and ultimately ruins his future.
I’m not exactly sure when Gatsby stopped being my stock answer to the favorite book question. I think it has something to do with me reckoning with my own past or getting over a childhood in a bucolic but small-minded suburban town. Now, when I am asked, I list Fitzgerald’s posthumous essay collection The Crack-Up among my favorite books, which chronicles his alcoholism, Zelda’s illness, and his hopes for their daughter, Scotty. In it the author’s penchant for nostalgia is omnipresent. In the essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age” Fitzgerald looks back at the 1920s, the era when he had his greatest career success and the peak of his personal happiness. He posits that it was a wild and wonderful time not just for him, but for America: after the hangover of the war the party raged on again, or as he has it, Americans were “a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure.” Noir is about when the hedonism leads to heady times. Reading Fitzgerald is experiencing the pleasure and the pain of the past, as well as the hazy hopes for a brighter future.