1 Aug 2010 4:41 pm   //   Filed under: Bicycles, Books

A bike tour of “The Great Gatsby”

“It was on that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York—and where there are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land. Twenty miles from the city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound.” — The Great Gatsby, Chapter 1.

This summer I’ve been obsessed with “The Great Gatsby”. Yesterday I decided to ride my bike to the towns on the North Shore of Long Island where the book is set. How closely do these neighborhoods resemble the roaring ’20s kaleidoscope I see in my imagination when I read this story? Would I find Gatsby out there?

F. Scott Fitzgerald disguised the setting of “The Great Gatsby” with the fictional town names of West Egg and East Egg, but he included enough information that anybody in the know can place them. The town of West Egg where Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby live corresponds to the real-life place of Great Neck. More specifically, the characters live in the village of Kings Point, at the end of the neck. (According to Wikipedia, Fitzgerald modeled Nick’s home after his own home at 6 Gateway Drive in Great Neck, though in the story Nick’s house is much closer to the Sound.) The Buchanans live in East Egg, which in real life must be Port Washington, right across the Manhasset Bay, in the village of Sands Point.

I decided to hit East Egg first, pedaling my bike ride along Northern Boulevard/25A. (This is a crummy place to ride a bike, but it’s about the only non-expressway option around there.) After a few wrong turns I found my way to West Shore Road, where I passed a business called Buchanan Marine. Any relation?

Eventually I ended up at the water’s edge in Sands Point, home to meandering cul-de-sacs of discreet mansions surrounded by woods. Some have grand views that reach all the way to the Manhattan skyline.

This was satisfying. I could easily see Tom and Daisy choosing this elite alcove for their home.

From there, I pedaled on to the main event: Great Neck, or West Egg. Nick calls West Egg the less fashionable of the two towns, and it rings true when you see the homes out in Kings Point. Compared to the ones on Sands Point, they telegraph the idea of new money. Here you’ll see a lot of fake columns, decorative masonry and gilded gates. I saw one mansion with a Benz parked in the curving driveway and two oversized concrete statuettes on either side of the front door—one of Mickey Mouse, one of Minnie. Another typical Kings Point home has a grand staircase leading to the front door, framed by huge, rainbow-mirrored glass windows.

At the very end of the Kings Point, I was delighted to find that there’s actually a Gatsby Lane!

One house on Gatsby Lane in particular caught my eye—and ear. It sits facing the bay, as Gatsby’s does in the book. A line of luxury cars crawled around the driveway, just like Gatsby’s place. A party was underway there; I could see people milling around on a deck overlooking the water, possibly by a pool. “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz was playing as I rode by. Over the thumps of summer dance music, I heard a live DJ making announcements to fire up the party. A sign by the entrance said “Park on one side of Gatsby Lane. There will be big fines if you don’t!”

Wow. When I planned this bike ride, I felt mainly like a tourist/voyeur gawking at the playground of the rich. I had no expectation of finding anything this similar to Fitzgerald’s story!

“There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains.” — The Great Gatsby, Chapter 3

This was it—a 21st-century Gatsby mansion in mind, heart and spirit. I’m sure people familiar with Great Neck know whose place this is, and who inhabits the other mansions around it. I have no idea who lives here, but I do wonder, morbidly, if they’ve read “Gatsby” all the way to the end.

But wonders aside, my curiosity was satisfied. I biked back to Queens through downtown Great Neck, passing the Long Island Railroad station probably used both by Fitzgerald and his narrator Nick Carraway.

Related post: See a Google Map of this bike ride.

This was a satisfying ride that scratched my literary tourism itch. There was one moment, in particular, when I felt a mysterious echo of the book. On a wooded stretch of road in Port Washington, between the golf courses and mansions, I heard the rattle of an old car approaching. I reached for my cell phone to snap a picture of it as it whizzed by. The picture turn out poorly, as if I were photographing a ghost. But that could be him—The Great Gatsby himself.