11 Jul 2010 1:07 pm   //   Filed under: Books, New York is different

Growing Up Gatsby

“I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.”

“I’m thirty,” I said. “I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.”

Do they still teach “The Great Gatsby” in schools? They did in Maryland in the 1990s, when I read the book for the first time. At that time (9th grade maybe?) I had never been to New York City, had a girlfriend, or attended a party thrown by a wealthy strangers. The narrator, Nick Carraway, seemed unattainably cool and wise as he cruised through the high-society jumble of Manhattan and Long Island. The book was a fantasy.

Now when I read “Gatsby,” I feel like I’ve lived entire chapters of it. (Minus, you know, the tragedy.) I’ve come to appreciate it as arguably the all-time best New York City summer story. This year, as I was re-reading it for probably the 5th time, I was shocked to realize I am now the same age as Nick, the cool narrator who once seemed so out of reach.

I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.

Today, given the path my life has taken, I can relate to Nick in strong terms. He’s an out-of-towner who comes to New York to work in finance, commuting to Manhattan from Long Island. His character is a self-sufficient bachelor who works hard, goes out a lot, and acts as a peacemaker among his friends. Also, he’s obsessed with trains.

As a setting for a story, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s New York of the 1920s might as well be New York I live in today. “Gatsby” landmarks like the Long Island Railroad, the Queensboro Bridge and the Plaza Hotel hold the same significance they did 85 years ago. And people haven’t changed much. You can almost picture Nick, Jordan, Tom and Daisy tapping away on iPhones as they’re trying not to get lost in Manhattan.

Yet while I identify with Nick, at 30 my experience with New York has been totally different from his. By the end of the book, Nick concludes that Midwesterners are so out of place in the East that they’ll be forever chasing unattainable goals, falling down, doomed to failure. The city has kicked his ass. He goes back home.

Gatsby’s green light on the pier—the girl you never got to marry, the wealth you never attained, the dream that turned out to be empty—made sense to me in high school. In college, it squared with my attitude that the deck was stacked against the little guy, and that even if you tried hard, the Man would keep you down. But today, I don’t feel that way at all. My life is hopeful.

I’ll probably keep re-reading “Gatsby” every few summers, but now it feels a little different. I still enjoy the story, and reading Fitzgerald helps me be a better writer. But I may have I learned all I can from Nick Carraway.