Talk of the Town - Gatsby goes South August 19 2004

No nouveaux is good nouveaux

Every year, literary cognoscenti get moist in the metaphor observing June 16 — Bloomsday — the date in 1904 when fictional characters tour Dublin in that paean to modernist obscurity, James Joyce’s Ulysses. One was the immortal Leopold Bloom, not to be confused with that timid bookkeeper in The Producers.

I never got over my exposure to the novel in college. It was foisted on us by a dipsomaniacal literature professor who, while thirstily waiting for the sun to touch the yardarm, or at least reach high noon, lugged two books to the podium — Ulysses and the Longwinded Lit Professor’s Explanation of What’s Really Going on in Ulysses.

The latter, brimming with footnoted alliteration, allusion and unadulterated academic horse offal, was twice as thick as the porky Irish masterwork. In tandem, these volumes did more to foster a youthful hatred of reading than an entire semester of post-frat party hangovers.

But you can’t eliminate any holiday, even a literary one, without reciprocity. So I propose replacing June 16 with another observance — Gatzday — honoring an American hero, the Great Gatsby, romantic lead in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the same name.

The observance would occur right about now, on one of those late-summer days when an ominous trickle of dead foliage — precursor of the endless drone from gas-powered leaf blowers — lets us know that lush ‘n’ green is but a seasonal decorator quirk on the part of Mother Nature.

It was late summer when Jay Gatsby of Long Island, N.Y. (nee James Gatz of North Dakota) saw his search for lost love punctured by poolside gunplay. It’s always a shock when mad mechanic George Wilson, erroneously convinced that Gatsby has both romanced and killed Mrs. W, shoots our protagonist before turning the gun on himself.

I hadn’t read Fitzgerald’s magnum opus in many a year, having ploughed through most of his stuff during a glorious stretch of unemployment that heralded my post-collegiate entry into the real world. It was a time when wealth and glamour still seemed an entirely reasonable proposition and I wasn’t going to accept anything else.

And at an age when one should read Fitzgerald. For by the time we get older, plumper and prone to catnaps, there’s not much point to roistering with Fitz. Most of his characters are vain, narcissistic and snobbish — a Coolidge-era version of the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association.

And that’s what struck me with recent re-reading of his best book, its curious way of vibrating to the local zeitgeist. For there is something Gatsbyesque in the air here — and you thought it was ozone — something about the massive palazzos and garish lifestyle wrought forth upon recently defiled pastureland — and about the strangely rich people who have come to inhabit it.

Because you can reinvent yourself Down South. Ethnic Catholics become devout Episcopalians. Redneck Riviera Baptists morph into Anglicans — just like Prince Charles! And ex-denizens of the Bronx turn their backs on the Yankees — in more ways than one — to become diehard Braves fans.

For many, moving here is like putting yourself through an Etch-A-Sketch. One shake of the frame and the slate is clean to start over. Cash frequently fuels the change, and there are vast quantities of it to be made when a nail-and-mail mall civilization is being raised up out of thin air.

The process always amazes me: Good ol’ boy cashes in selling property. Developer makes bundle liquidating 20 acres of wildlife. Construction company scoops up backhoe full of dough. I know of one guy who made his fortune selling that droopy plasticine fencing which holds the dirt back at construction sites.

And at day’s end what do we have? A commercial conga line to nowhere featuring a lousy Chinese restaurant, a dry cleaner and a storefront chance to turn your kids into tiny karate machines of flying fury.

People on the sunny side of this equation buy all sorts of adult toys. The local Ferrari dealership has managed to prosper, despite having to do without my business. Even Gatsby never imagined dropping $200K on a car.

And you can pull the Ferrari into a new house befitting your status as a plastic fencing baron. I recently saw a 12,000-square-foot private schloss under construction, a place so big it had its own reception hall. A reception hall, for God’s sake. A governor’s mansion needs a reception hall, not a private residence.

Nouveaux richesse has its price, of course, including one of the highest bankruptcy rates this side of a dot-bomb stockholders reunion. This is my best chance at the Ferrari, if someone happens to unload one at 10 cents on the dollar. And my leisure preference, too.

Because there’s no way I’m using the pool.

The Great Slatsby lives in Alpharetta.