Friday, February 11, 2011

Review: The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald


It is amazing that no matter how many things change over time, just as many stay the same. Despite all of the advances (and perhaps, in some way regression) that occurred between the turn of the 20th century and the 21st, some things just didn't move an inch. One of these things, which just happens to be the topic of The Beautiful and Damned, is rich, spoiled kids acting like spoiled, lazy, drunk idiots. Just as the heirs to railroad, steel, and various other industries at the beginning of the century were celebrated by sensationalist media, today every hotel heiress and professional sports player's (or decrepit pornography mogul's) girlfriend has a reality television show. See the parallel?

Just as many of us, though outvoted by devoted watchers, wail and moan at the stupidity of these individuals living their life in front of a camera, people like F. Scott Fitzgerald were doing it back then. The difference is, he was doing it with much better writing. By the time he had written The Great Gatsby, he had nearly perfected the art of daming the repulsive, stomach-turning way in which the richest of the rich lived. The Beautiful and Damned finds him honing his craft. You can see the path from it to The Great Gatsby, but in thematic terms, he still has a ways to go.

Published in 1922, The Beautiful and Damned focuses on Anthony Patch, a young layabout who happens to be the grandson of Adam Patch, an industry mogul turned moralist. Young Anthony, expecting his grandfather to die in the near future, leaving him piles and piles of money, does what any infantile mind with no responsibilities and a large allowance would do: drinks; dines; parties; drinks; has drunken esoteric conversations with his other rich, drunk, vacuous friends; and drinks some more. In the midst of all this drinking he falls in love with, and marries, Gloria Gilbert, a young woman with a sense of self-entitlement that equals Anthony's, but a family fortune which doesn't. After getting married, they drink, party, loathe each other, and come up with plans for what they will do with all of their money when Adam Patch dies.

Adam Patch, on the other hand, has other ideas concerning his capacity for not dying. He just keeps hanging in there, staying alive. During all of this time, Anthony and Gloria's lifestyle is outpacing their allowances. The keep trading down in living conditions, but can't help but spend exorbitant amounts of money on social engagements. Eventually, Adam Patch does die, but to the horror of our young cretins, does not leave a single penny to Anthony. The two are both unwilling to find jobs and slowly move from upper to middle to lower class as the estate appeal goes through the courts.That is the plot of the book in a nutshell. There is a bit more, but I don't want to spoil the conclusion for anyone.

I didn't find The Beautiful and Damned nearly as powerful as The Great Gatsby in its denunciation of the way the rich lived during this time. This doesn't surprise me, however, as the latter is one of the greatest modern novels ever written. Fitzgerald's chacterization of Anthony and Gloria in The Beautiful and Damned just feels a bit heavy handed and over the top. They have literally no redeeming qualities whatsoever. While Gatsby may have been a showoff and was careless with his money and reputation, at least he had a capacity for tenderness and friendship. You still feel the tragedy at the conclusion of the novel. Anthony and Gloria, on the other hand, only inspire half-hearted contempt and quarter-hearted pity. Their behavior is too disgusting to feel sympathy for their tremendous decline, but pathetic enough that you can't hate them.

Fitzgerald's writing is top knotch here. He brings New York City at the beginning of the Twentieth Century to life with his descriptions of the decadent, swinging nightlife enjoyed by the uber-wealthy on one hand and the relative squallor endured by those not quite so fortunate. Seeing the habitat of Anthony and Gloria change over the course of the novel while their outlook remained static was quite interesting.

Is this the best book written in the 20th Century? No, definitely not. It is not even the best novel Fitzgerald wrote. Not even close. What it is, though, is a piece of social commentary that has stood the test of time. The themes are just as relevant today as they were almost one-hundred years ago. I know that I can turn on the television and find Anthony or Gloria on at least ten different channels. This is precisely while I think I'll just open another book instead.

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Speaking of opening another book, the random number generator drew Staligrad: The Fateful Siege (1942-1943) by Antony Beevor. I'm a big WWII fan, so this one should be interesting. It will be the first nonfiction book that I'll have reviewed so far. That will be a bit out of my comfort zone, so I might make it a short review. We'll see. Also, posts will be sparse this weekend. I have friends coming in from out of state and we're all going to the Cincy Beerfest. Hopefully I make it through the weekend alive.

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