“Wow, I can’t wait to see this new ‘The Great Gatsby’ flick,” said my buddy Alner as we headed for my car.
“The book was one of the best American novels ever,” I replied.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the 1920s – you know, bathtub gin, flapper girls. They were the days,” he went on, resting his hand on the door handle and staring off into space. “Wish I could have been F. Scott Fitzgerald, hanging out in Paris. He must have made a fortune with his writing.”
I sighed and shook my head.
“Oh no, what have I done,” cried Alner, trying to jump into the car. “It’s another one of your trips.”
Within moments, courtesy of my power of metaphysical travel, we were in downtown Wilkes-Barre in 1925, the very year that “The Great Gatsby” was published by the Scribner’s company of New York City.
He moaned. “This wasn’t on my agenda.”
“It would be fun to stop at a local bookstore and pick up an original copy of ‘Gatsby,’” I said. “But our chances of finding one there are iffy.”
“How so? I thought it was a best seller.”
“This novel, now considered one of the greatest ever written, didn’t make much of a splash at first. It sold barely 20,000 copies in 1925. Know what the most popular novel of the year was? It was ‘Soundings,’ by A. Hamilton Gibbs, not exactly a household name in our day. Good luck waiting for that movie. In fact, Fitzgerald never cracked the top 10 best-sellers. The most famous writer in America of the ‘20s was Sinclair Lewis, author of ‘Main Street’ and ‘Babbitt.’”
“I had no idea,” said Alner. “Hey, let’s find a speakeasy.”
“I can just see you growling ‘Joe sent me.’ From what I’ve read, though – ‘The Untouchables’ notwithstanding – authorities eased up on alcohol when they discovered the public didn’t support prohibition. So don’t expect any drama today.”
“I can’t believe how busy the downtown is,” said Alner.
“It’s just the cat’s pajamas.”
“Now what does that mean?” replied Alner.
“It’s something very, very good. The 1920s spawned a lot of slang. Ever hear of a lounge lizard? That was a sporty 1920s gent who liked the ladies.”
“We’re going to miss the start of the movie,” Alner sighed.
“Calm yourself. I’ve freeze-framed 2013.”
“OK, OK. Hey, I love those big, boxy cars rumbling around Public Square. Hey, look, a flapper.”
“She’s probably your grandmother. Historians say the 1920s was a very prosperous time. Hundreds of homes and businesses were being built every year around here. Unemployment was almost unknown, though, to be fair, most of the local jobs were pretty dirty and dangerous ones in the coal industry. Be that as it may, the populations of Wyoming Valley’s urban communities were double or triple what they are in our day.”
“Even I know these good times won’t last.”
“True,” I nodded. “King Coal is about to start its decline, and the Great Depression and World War II aren’t far off.”
“What happened to F. Scott Fitzgerald?”
“His good days won’t last either. He’ll produce some great stuff, like my all-time favorite short story ‘Babylon Revisited.’ But he’ll die in 1940 – just 44 years old. He’ll never see a dime from the millions of college kids who will someday have to buy ‘Gatsby’ for their English courses.”
“That’s sad,” said Alner. Come on, let’s get back home. Suddenly I’m thinking 2013 isn’t such a bad time.”
“It’s the bee’s knees, old buddy.”
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.