First published in 1922, the lost work The Cruise of the Rolling Junk follows the author's road trip through the American South.
F Scott Fitzgerald work rescued from the scrapheap
F Scott Fitzgerald aficionados were given a surprise treat in the early 1980s when a last, given-up-for-lost batch of short stories was published. The previously uncollected tales in both volumes of The Price Was High were a mixed bag. Flappers and philosophers were in short supply. One story was an obituary for the author's mother, written while she was still alive. Another was set in the ninth century. All were written for money, the latter ones to pay off substantial debts accrued through fast living. Fitzgerald's heart, one suspects, was not in some of them, but nonetheless we were thankful for what vestiges of genius we got.
Thirty years later, after believing the Fitzgerald well to be dry, along comes another surprise in the shape of this little curio from Hesperus Press. With The Cruise of the Rolling Junk Hesperus surpasses its unique selling point of restoring "unjustly neglected" classics: for many, this obscure Fitzgerald tale is not only forgotten, it is completely unknown (the adventure is downplayed to a mere couple of lines in Matthew J Bruccoli's definitive biography, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur). In fact as it is the first ever UK publication of a work by one of the 20th-century's greatest writers, we could even be so bold as to call this a publishing coup for Hesperus.
Fitzgerald summed his tale up best in a 1934 letter to Max Perkins at Scribner's, terming it "a long, supposedly humorous account of an automobile journey". The "supposedly humorous" shows the lack of faith that Fitzgerald could occasionally have in his work, even in those early heady glory days filled with promise. It was written in 1922, the same year as The Beautiful and Damned, but the adventure actually took place two years earlier, shortly after Fitzgerald's resounding success with his debut, This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald hoped his "25,000 word touring serial" would get snapped up by the Saturday Evening Post and earn him $2,500. But the paper rejected it, and despite rewrites and appeals to his agent, Fitzgerald had to settle in the end for a measly $300 from Motoring magazine. Furthermore, the instant success he envisioned turned out to be an agonising waiting game, with the finished result appearing in print in 1924, two whole years after he had written it.
The premise for the road trip was simple. Zelda, now based with Scott in Connecticut, sorely missed the biscuits and peaches from her childhood in her native Alabama. And so one morning, on a whim - and perhaps exhibiting a flash of that recklessness that would in time engulf and ruin the pair of them - Scott decides that they will leave immediately for the south. What's more, they will drive. He irons out his wife's doubts by drawing "an ethereal picture", explaining:
"how we would roll southward along the glittering boulevards of many cities, then, by way of quiet lanes and fragrant hollows whose honeysuckle branches would ruffle our hair with white sweet fingers, into red and dusty-colored country towns, where quaint fresh flappers in wide straw lids would watch our triumphant passage with wondering eyes..."
Of course this is deliberately hyperbolic, an infusion of warm, rich language intended to coax his wife; but it is also representative of Fitzgerald's early style which, despite its excesses, always seduced the reader. Immediately afterwards Zelda punctures the fantasy, admitting she would be game '"if it wasn't for the car."' The car in question is a juddering old 1918 Marmon which Scott had bought second-hand at the time of his marriage. He nicknamed it an "Expenso" but the pair of them agreed on the more affectionate "Rolling Junk". They pack, take their chances and embark on the 1,200-mile journey south, from Westport to Montgomery.
Their "cruise" is indeed humorous. Fitzgerald was known at times for his light touch but his forays into actual comedy were hit-and-miss (the Pat Hobby stories of the late Thirties worked because the protagonist was modelled on its creator and Fitzgerald had grown more self-deprecating; but The Vegetable, his only play, and penned in the early Twenties when his cockiness could border on arrogance, was a flop). Rolling Junk succeeds, not so much because of when it was written but because everything that can go wrong on such a road-trip does go wrong. The Fitzgeralds are up against confusing guidebooks, misleading signposts, hostile weather, sneering Samaritans and condescending mechanics (even one lunatic highwayman), and experience one breakdown after another. They are also up against each other, being recently married and prone to petty squabbling and point-scoring. The fact that the car is a banger on its last legs, and that Fitzgerald is a rotten driver and Zelda a lousy map-reader, exacerbates all of these problems and heightens the comedy.
In among the slapstick are more serious interludes. Fitzgerald's bad driving may have been due to him also being an observant passenger, and it is refreshing to have the squabbles and the frippery put on hold for moments of sober reflection. He tells us how the "ante-bellum landscapes" they traverse and the people they encounter are still wounded by the Civil War. The country's "slain boys", by no means forgotten, "still slept in the marshes and the wooded swamps". He hints at the more recent destruction from the Great War but in one or two instances regrettably ditches the subtlety to blatantly patronise black Americans. But we are soon off again, stuttering and stalling and being overtaken by "flivvers", with both seriousness and prejudices consigned to the backseat.
We may question these tonal missteps but Fitzgerald is as adroit here as he is in his novels at papering over his own cracks with gorgeous prose. Away from the cities and their cruel citizens who mock them, the scenery is joyfully, lushly Arcadian. Fitzgerald has fun with unlikely descriptions. The sun, we are told, first taps at his closed eyelids, then starts to pound "with broad, hot hammers." Elsewhere "dark skies leaned over the road and the fields". At one point we are told a burst tyre "was kneeling down"; and, employing a favourite image that would reappear in his fiction, hills are "slow". He saves the best for the journey's end. Defying all odds, the Junk putters in one piece towards the shimmering finishing-line:
"The south now - its breath was warm upon us. The trees no longer exfloreated in wild haste, as though they feared that October was already scurrying over the calendar - their branches gestured with the faintly tired hauteur of a fine lady's hand. The sun was at home here, touching with affection the shattered ruins of once lovely things."
We are now miles from the "streets and haste and poverty and pain" of Long Island - a depiction that would be subverted and refashioned into something more sumptuous for The Great Gatsby three years later. The south in Rolling Junk, a near-utopia, is also described as "a limitless empire". The Fitzgeralds would tear themselves away from it and return home, but not before celebrating in style - another premonition of what was to come.
As far as road trips go, The Cruise of the Rolling Junk is not exactly Kerouac - madcap, certainly, but never wild - nor can we visualise it as one of those sedate car journeys Nabokov would make, with him in the back scribbling and Véra as chauffeur. Fitzgerald's chronicle works because much of the comedy stems from regular lovers' tiffs and because he allows the past-its-prime Junk to become a character in its own right.
There is sure to be renewed interest in Fitzgerald later this year with Baz Luhrmann's no-doubt lavish take on Gatsby. For the moment we could do a lot worse than marvel at this rediscovered gem. It might lack the sparkle of some of those incandescent short stories but it is at least genuine, not shining dully like some of those later, cash-driven tales but glinting more than enough to charm.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.