‘Gatsby: My Story’: A book review

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GatsbyCoverBetterNick Carraway and your English lit professor got it all wrong. A madman’s gunshots did not kill the hero of The Great Gatsby, published 90 years ago on April 10, 1925.

The corpse inside the coffin was someone else, a clever ruse. With a “heavyweight team” of FBI men about to nab him, the real Jay Gatsby fled to Havana to grow still richer off illicit booze—closer to the source in the distribution chain. Gatsby got in on the casino action, too. If alive today, he would be thrilled by the bonanzas that the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations might eventually send his way.

So—with the exception of the 21st-century diplomatic update—goes Gatsby: My Story. Michael Spindler’s unauthorized sequel appeared in 2013. Shame on the American literary establishment for overlooking it even if some unpleasant legal questions may arise. Meanwhile don’t worry about my spoiler. Plenty else will keep you reading.

Did you know, for example, that Jay’s memories of Daisy were not as platonic as Carraway led us to believe? Daisy’s father the judge had given her a white Stutz roadster for her 18th birthday. In it she and Jay ventured to “out-of-the way dark places” and “rutted like alley cats and howled nearly as much.” Speaking of judges, Gatsby sees them as more buyable than admirable. In marrying Daisy—a judge‘s daughter from Alabama—Tom Buchanan was slumming it. But then again, in the wake of all the gossip following his “shamelessly public affair” with an Armour heiress, Tom’s choices in Chicago were limited.

Faring no better in Spindler’s sequel is Daisy, “a complete ninny mentally; it was only the brilliance of her smile and the smoothness of her thighs that distracted you from the idiocy of whatever she said.”

By contrast, as a revisionist, Spindler offers encomia for Arnold Rothstein, the real gangster after whom Fitzgerald modeled his Meyer Wolfsheim character. Oh, yes, Rothstein “The Brain” fixed the 1919 World Series—he was hardly crime-free. But Carraway just was not aware of the true origins of the “finest specimens of human molars” that the Wolfsheim character turned into cuff buttons. How could the specimens not be first-rate? They were from the gangster’s own mouth, courtesy his dentist. Spindler’s Wolfsheim/Rothstein just had a good sense of humor and this thing about keeping his body parts away from strangers.

I know. Even more than half a century after Fitzgerald’s death, certain people may hate Spindler’s book, including perhaps some in the Washington area, where Fitzgerald’s daughter, Frances “Scottie” Lanahan Smith was a writer in Georgetown. I can understand. No, it isn’t just a matter of respect for a literary giant. Consider the more sympathetic and engaging of the characters he created. Even if Carraway is naive and far from the most reliable of narrators, he comes across as likable, almost a member of the family. My late mother was from the Midwest, not Carraway and Fitzgerald’s Minnesota, but a place close enough in mindset in some ways. For me, at least, The Great Gatsby remains a Great American Novel, easily able to weather Spindler’s revisionism.

That said, let’s not write off Spindler as a literacy parasite. For example, he does not simply reproduce dialog or come close to it. His Jay Gatsby is always quick with his own spin. Significantly, too, Spindler has fleshed out the former “Jimmy” Gatz’s biography. He has even turned him convincingly into a serious student of politics and literature–tutored by I.W.W. activists, not just Oxford dons. At the same time, Gatsby is hardly a genuine radical. He cares more about succeeding within The System than overturning it.

michaelspindlerSo who is Michael Spindler? He is retired British academic and a performance artist with Marxist tendencies and a passion for Americana and much more. As an expert in Thorstein Verblen, the chronicler of “conspicuous consumption, Spindler must have enjoyed writing up Gatsby’s parties in the waterfront mansion actually owned by Rothstein (just the ticket as a rum-running center). Spindler’s Gatsby even serves up four mentions of Veblen. Reading the novel, I could not help thinking that Gatsby is in part what Spindler would have fantasized himself as being in the master bootlegger’s place–not just a variant of Fitzgerald‘s own hero. Gatsby: My Story is all the better for its might-have-beens.

In some ways the fate of Spindler’s book itself says something about America—both our literary criticism and our legal system. Despite all the imagination and flair in Gatsby: My Story, it remains obscure here and probably in the U.K. as well, perhaps because it’s self-published and perhaps because of legal complications. Yes, Spindler can be wordy and too meandering and discursive at times. But never did my interest flag, and besides, those two flaws certainly would fit the reinvented Gatsby’s character.

The legalities fascinate me as much as the literary angles. During the Clinton administration, at the urging of movie studios, author estates and the like, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extention Act. While Scribner’s published The Great Gatsby in April 1925, you still cannot legally copy it in the U.S. without permission. That also means that unless Spindler can show that his work is a parody covered under the fair use doctrine—in this case, the right at times to build on an author’s work without permission–he might be in violation of existing copyright law in one form or another. Could legal threats be why the e-book is currently not available from the U.S. site for Amazon even though it came out in 2013? At the same time, the novel is online at another major American e-store (no reader reviews), as well as at the British incarnation of Amazon (two five-star raves from customers, including one that insightfully classifies the Spindler book as a “a sort of literacy criticism”). Who knows what’s going on? So far the author and his distributor, eBookPartnership, have not responded to my e-mail queries.

No matter what’s happening, at least for now you don’t have to buy a, ugh, bootlegged copy. Just Google around for the e-book. For reasons of self-preservation, I’ll err on the cautious side and not supply a direct Web link to the novel without knowing more about its legal status here in the U.S.

Regardless of the complications—in fact, maybe because of them—Fitzgerald himself might actually have enjoyed Gatsby: My Story, having said that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I have never met his heirs, but from afar I’ve heard that one of them can very much be a maverick on occasions, and she actually might appreciate Spindler’s irreverence. In her place, if she believes that the book violates copyright law, I would actually encourage the estate to coopt Spindler and collect a good share of the booty from his book and film rights. That would help keep the Gatsby character on the literacy radar, long term, especially as the composition of America changes and interest wanes at least somewhat in writings by dead white men. Seeking compensation, the estate would simply be taking advantage of copyright as it exists now—well, assuming that the Spindler work isn’t transformative fair use. A possible legal case for the copyright warriors at Harvard Law School to litigate?

Too bad such issues must arise. As more than a few law professors will agree, Bono is horrible law. It’s one thing to walk away with another writer’s characters while the author or immediate descendants are still alive (if this isn’t fair use!). It’s another to do so when a book is 90 years old and the creator lies buried in a cemetery in Rockville, Maryland. All the cash in the cosmos won’t reincarnate F. Scott Fitzgerald and incentivize him to create again.

If copyright horrors are why Spinder’s memorable e-book is not on sale now at Amazon, then this is yet another good reason for Washington to trim copyright terms to more suitable lengths. Instead of inflicting U.S.-brutal terms on other countries through trade treaties, we should focus on making our own system less Wolfsheim-like. These molars, so to speak, are other people’s.

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