If two writers are obsessed by a subject, if one — Leslie Pietrzyk — is a storyteller, and one — Maureen Corrigan — a scholar in a literary age obsessed by memoir and the uses of memoir, what kind of choices do they make when it comes to telling their own stories? And just as importantly, what kind of uses do they make of their obsessions? For these two local writers — Corrigan, a constituent of an American Literary Republic that has elected The Great Gatsby as the foundational text of 20th century American literature and Pietrzyk, a constituent, once upon a time, of a much smaller republic, but with universal claims all its own, namely a young widows group in Fairfax, VA, just outside of Washington, D.C. — the answers are intriguing.

Both books are tales of erasure and rebirth, one of a human life, the other, a books life, and both authors, too, are students of a curse, Corrigan’s seemingly someone else’s, Pietrzyk’s her own. Pietrzyk has reckoned with her obsession in other books and in other forms, but both are students of an American literary prototype, the drowned swimmer who is constantly breaking the surface of the author’s sensibility, shattering it, or perhaps, if she is lucky, saving it in the end. And while Corrigan’s is ostensibly the memoir of another book’s life, Pietrzyk’s, while not a memoir per se, is a series of short stories that somehow manages to link up fictional and historical truth at the same time and, while doing so, gets at something that transcends both.

 

 

Pietrzyk_fin     Leslie Pietrzyk: This Angel on My Chest

 

In the popular imagination, angels are depicted hovering high above, or if closer, overshadowing, or when nearest, alighting on one’s shoulder (with the devil on the other side), but rarely do we see an angel perched on someone’s chest. Perhaps this is because the image takes us places we don’t expect to go with an angel — the feathers of its wings getting in our noses, the suffocating pressure making it hard to breathe, the image, furthermore, suggesting that we are lying down and can’t get up.

 

This Angel on My Chest, the winner of the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, takes its title from lyrics in the Bruce Springsteen song “Backstreets,” and is a title appropriate for short stories that convey how a widow can feel like a “slut” for seeing another man, how one can be stuck in a moment and at the same time hyperaware of what is occurring before and after that moment, or how one can insist on ruminating on the very thing one most wants to forget. These are stories that “explain” how you can be on fire and frozen at the same time — stories like “The Quiz,” so unorthodox and yet so true to human experience.

 

For the reader, knowledge of the narrator’s horribly charged situation clarifies otherwise incomprehensible behavior and, therefore, Pietrzyk’s unnamed angel suggests all of the biblical functions without their concomitant powers: Her angel does not communicate directly with God, seems a messenger or emissary for no sort of transcendence, and in the story where the Springsteen lyrics appear seems a stand-in for Pietrzyk’s obsession with the unreliable nature of “truth,” given the ambiguity of the lyrics in the song and the narrator’s initial confusion about their meaning. Even if her angel is a messenger of God or an agent of revelation, one remembers that Satan, too, was an angel and that angels are forces of darkness as much as they are the forces of light. The lyrics are introduced in a story entitled “Do You Believe in Ghosts?,” which ends with the narrator saying, “You know Terry in that Springsteen song I was talking about? I get now that Terry is a ghost.” If Pietrzyk’s angel is not diaphanous and synonymous with light, it only serves to suggest that the stories themselves must bear closer scrutiny if we are to understand the uses not only of her particular accompanying angelic companion, but of the obsession she can neither resolve or release.

 

For Pietrzyk it is a problem that there is no Hallmark card, no friendly advice that calls for the recipient to bear rather than shed her suffering. Not accepting a Hallmark vision of life while dealing with the unimaginableness of death suggests that her accompanying angel “alights” on her without the reassurance of religion, and suggests that this angel, in fact, sits on her chest because it has tired wings. Her grief must be carried.

 

In the early stories, the release, no less than the reason for each narrator’s behavior, hides itself from them. Nowhere does Pietrzyk depict the reality she is simultaneously trying to confront and escape more chillingly than in the terrifying scene in the “Cornflakes” section of the short story “Chapter Ten: An Index of Food (Draft).” After describing how she disposes of a cereal bowl, she writes:

 

Also, I threw away the pieces of the light blue terrycloth robe the paramedics slashed off your body as they repeatedly tried to shock your heart into beating while I sat on the too soft bed in the guest room, shuffled there by a middle-aged cop distracting me from the grim beeps and grunts with his chatter about the weather, which I don’t remember at all except that it was stupidly sunny. And the sky was stupidly blue.

 

In an earlier story, “The Quiz,” written in the form of a multiple-choice exam with seven questions, which Pietrzyk described as the “spine of the book” during her reading last October at Montgomery College, the correct answer is always “D.” Whether the narrator is introduced at a party to a single man her age, or asked for directions at a grocery store, or deciding on a restaurant to not go to with friends, the correct answer, no matter the repercussions, is always a variation of “my husband died of a brain aneurysm six months ago and he was only 42.” That Pietrzyk poses D as the only answer does not mean that A, B, or C are not “correct.” Pietrzyk seems to be implying that in each encounter there is no real choice between the searing reality of her young husband’s absence, and the way it is experienced, at least, and the washed-out and attenuated A, B, or Cs, which keep the commonplace going. The correct answer is always D because even in its off-putting refusal, it is also somehow, on a different level, a refutation, and therefore transcendently alive, because in some form or fashion, no matter how absurd it may appear, it is keeping the memory of her husband alive.

 

This is also because, paradoxically, D serves to discern the great spiritual vacuum — not of her own life — but of the lives of her interlocutors, and the Hallmark sensibility animating their reactions to her circumstance. Even with the man who might be hitting on her, one gets the feeling that she is taking the path of self-denying responsibility while everyone else is on a path of self-indulgent adventure. This perception, of course, is somewhat skewed. Indeed, in a later story, when one narrator decides to finally go out on a date, “because she had to go out with someone eventually,” the story’s title, “Slut,” says it all.

 

She was out the door, then paused for a moment on the top step. It was wrong. But she unlocked the door and went back in for one — only one — condom to tuck inside the zipper pocket of her purse. Slut, she thought.

 

When the author/narrator of “Chapter Ten: An Index of Food (Draft)” introduces “Snickers,” a  candy her husband liked, but also the name of her husband’s beloved childhood dog, she then makes this admission: “I’ve used stories of this dog before, in other books I’ve written not only here in this current work.” The asterisk that goes with this quote cites Pietrzyk’s novel A Year and a Day, the title taken from the pop psychology theory that it should only take a year to get over the death of a loved one. In that novel, a 15-year-old girl’s mother commits suicide, and she is left alone and confused, trying to cope. While there is a sentence or two about Snickers the dog in the fine print of This Angel on My Chest, the sentences that immediately follow it, if one picks up the novel A Year and a Day, include, “None of it made sense. How a man like that could die.”

 

But to imply that everything that Pietrzyk has written only tells a version of the same story, however, would be a simplification in the sense that at a deeper level, in each book, the rich language can be seen as an enactment not only of a search for her husband’s presence in language itself, but in literature too, and therefore also an encounter with the sources of literary inspiration. In Index, which Pietrzyk called the “beating heart” of the book, and which she read in its entirety at Politics and Prose in October, it becomes clear that her deceased husband is also her muse because the fact of his early death seems to grant her a grasp on spiritual truth offered not on the foothills, but only on the highest reaches of Parnassus.  For while on one level, in each story, the narrator’s personality is a battleground, the source and scene of intense struggle, of conflict renewed again and again, in which her deceased husband’s spirit seems so transcendentally important to her that all communal bonds seem sad and wearying, each story also presents the drama of the divided will as it strains towards what it sees as opposites and is therefore a battleground every reader, from Augustine, who read the Bible often and started the memoir craze in 371 A.D., to the present day can relate to and understand. She will not accept the death of her husband, which societal conformity requires, because it would result in the writer’s death. Amidst a world that is spiritually dead — to each narrator’s way of seeing it —she strives furiously to keep her husband’s soul, and therefore her muse, alive.

 

In fact, the story “One True Thing” takes place at a famous writer’s conference, barely disguised, which Pietrzyk admits to attending, and at which, in two recent readings, she admitted to meeting the poet who gave her the idea to finally confront her husband Rob’s death directly in prose. As she said at Politics and Prose, “I blurred fact and fiction quite a bit — but each story had to include one true hard thing from grieving Rob’s death.”

 

Louise said, “It’s your one story. Like Updike and Rabbit. Roth and Zuckerman. Richard Ford and Frank Bascombe. Vanessa and Michael.”

 

She longed to demand that Louise never speak his name again, but she concentrated on her careless smile as she said, “But it’s not a story. It’s what happened.”

 

“Same thing.”

 

Later in the story Louise insists again:

 

“Write about it.”

 

“I said stop saying that. We’re talking about a real, dead person.” I said, “Someone who was alive but now isn’t. Not some character in one of your idiotic New Yorker stories.”….

 

She was calm. “Writers don’t choose their material. It comes to them.”

 

Something our workshop teacher had drilled into us back in 1996. Something I parroted to my own students, in interviews about writing, in conversation, even at the party last night. As one of my writing teachers once said, writers don’t choose their material, it comes to them

 

This story, like most of the other stories, winds up going places completely unexpected, and as Pietrzyk said at Montgomery College, the real germ of the inspiration for these stories — the one that made her comfortable with deleting 200 pages of a novel that was going nowhere — was “a random conversation with a poet at a writer’s retreat about subcultures” in America. It was then that it hit her: What about the young widows group in Fairfax County of which she was a member? She described how “literally by the end of the day, I had a list of 20 stories and gave myself the assignment to write one true thing in each of them.”  One of those stories, “Someone in Nebraska,” was published in 2014 in the Potomac Review, edited by Julie Wakeman-Linn, who introduced Pietrzyk to the overflow audience at her Montgomery College reading.

 

Pietrzyk, who teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University and Converse College, answered students’ questions, and all of her answers seemed to be a variation on a theme she emphasized without ever saying it directly, namely, that narratives are the real superpowers in terms of uncovering the truth. As she said, “If a short story can’t tell the truth, what else can?”

 

The early death hovers over her world like a cloud or a shadow, but even while that early death is menacing, it is also sustaining to her as a writer because her muse is made present by her husband’s absence, and because of this, her work traces not only his erasure but also the erasure of meaning that the Hallmark, pop psychology, and popular media reckoning with reality can create. In the story “One Art,” which takes place at the Story League in Washington D.C. in May 2011, and takes its title from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem of the same name that begins, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” she quotes Bishop directly (“Write it!”) at the end to point out that narrative and fictional “truth” get at reality in a way that reporting cannot.

 

THE TRUTH: This story is true and everything in it happened to me. It’s what we like to call the truth. But I could tell this story all day long. It’s nothing personal. People think my guts were quivering on the floor. People in the audience tell me they watched my naked, beating heart. Not so. No way. I would never really do that. I hide, I hide the truth from everyone, from friends, family, readers, and most of all from (Write it!) myself. Those stories I imagine I won’t ever tell: those are the personal ones.

 

“One Art”

 

In the end, nowhere in the world of other people can she build a fortress against her husband’s death. This is because those memories leave the deposit from which her profoundest thoughts derive.

 

One may infer that Pietrzyk is interested in these kinds of writerly questions because she is not only a teacher but also the proprietor of two websites, Redux and Work-in-Progress, that pay close attention to literary matters. One may further surmise, therefore, that she is interested in questions of “historical truth” and “narrative truth” and the relationship between memoir and fiction, reliable and unreliable narrators, memory and reporting. Her rejection or pressing down of the dominant Hallmark sentimentality in her stories is itself a reflection of a writer’s reckoning with our empty culture as it is reflected in current societal mores. If she examines our private sentimentalities as a storyteller, as an editor she confronts our public sentimentalities and likewise surrounds herself with writers for whom they contain little meaning and who, in fact, may feel excluded by them.

 

Pietrzyk recently published an essay where she pointed out that the most common question writers get these days is, “Did that story really happen?” Describing the writing of This Angel on My Chest in an essay entitled “Did it Really Happen? Fact, Fiction, Fate,” published October 5,2015 in Literary Hub, she tells of editors who turned down the book, “because it accomplished its goal too well.” She quotes Tim O’Brien, the author of The Things They Carried, the modern classic novel about war published as fiction but drawn from O’Brien’s service in the Vietnam War. “Just because something never happened doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” What is true, however, is that mention of O’Brien was at the very writer’s conference she chronicles in her story “One True Thing.”

 

There was a line in my book that I kept staring at for no reason: “Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now.” The Things They Carried. Tim O’Brien.

 

In the essay she writes, “I have never been to war. I hope in my lifetime I never personally witness anything like what I imagine war to be. I know that in war unspeakable things happen.”

 

Pietrzyk does not need to say that she, too, is a student of unspeakable things.

 

In the final story, “Present Tense,” Pietrzyk brings us into the home of her current life. The narrator is walking along the beach with her new husband.

 

All weekend I’ve held my breath for him to ask me, for him to say it: “Would you ever write a book about me? Do you love me enough to write a whole book about me? Do you love me that much, as much as him? Do you love me as much as you loved him?”

 

No, he does not ask that. He does not ask that. He does not draw a heart with his bare finger. He does not need to ask those questions — or to hear my answer — he doesn’t need to see our names written in the sand. He can stand and stare straight at the endless ocean in this moment and be unafraid.

 

And that, that is always the first thing on the list of the things I love about him — about you, Steve, about you.

 

No, she won’t write a book about him. He’s not her muse, he’s her husband.

 

PRBlAlbertCorrigan    Maureen Corrigan: So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures

 

If biography is difficult, and literary biography the “impossible craft”—there are at least 14 different accounts of just one important episode in Scott and Zelda’s marriage, how many accounts can one imagine existing of the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most important book if one were to try and record all of the places and people that have fallen in love with it, been troubled by it, been gripped by it, or made helpless by its power. Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures is a biography of the book in its many iterations— it examines the many windows through which it has been seen, or at times obscured, and, in fact, not seen through the eyes of educational institutions, critics, writers, and local and national governments of its time and later times. Washington D.C., oddly enough, has an important place not only in Corrigan’s life, but in The Great Gatsby’s biography, in its very existence, in fact, or at least its resurrection and the fact that we are even aware of its existence today. The very survival of Gatsby is, according to Corrigan, among other things, a D.C. story.

 

If Leslie Pietrzyk is haunted by her subject matter by being forced to trace its erasure, Corrigan, who receives hundreds of books a month to review for NPR’s Fresh Air, has to ask herself a haunting question as well when tracing the erasure of the book she documents—whether there is a similarly overlooked book that has crossed her transom—and one wonders if her devotion to her enterprise is in some respect a talisman against summoning up the deeper fear that, in her most secret ratiocinations, must haunt her. Gatsby, as she recounts, did not receive good reviews, and soon found itself, to Fitzgerald’s lifelong despair, out of print. Among the questions a memoir of the life of The Great Gatsby has to ask is why, if it was once rejected, it can consistently overcome historical change and still manage to address our current situation, our current needs, fears, and desires. And why has Gatsby remained central not only to our culture, but to other cultures as well, even as the way Gatsby has been interpreted has undergone, over time, great change?

 

It is speculation, of course, but perhaps Corrigan goes on her unusual quest with such devotion, traces the life of the book in such detail, to ward off the not stated, perhaps inchoate thought that Gatsby speaks to us in our own terms only because it developed those terms. It is Gatsby, after all, that over time helped develop the very terms with which we speak about not only contemporary American literature but contemporary America itself. If we are missing something essential to the American story now, it might be because we are seeing America through the eyes not of contemporary relevance, but with the celestial eyes of the sad femme fatale that grace the most iconic dust jacket design in American literature.

 

In Corrigan’s book we learn that the dust jacket’s designer, Francis Cugat, was the older brother of Xavier, the famous band leader, and that an early rendition of the drawing “may have inspired Fitzgerald to come up with the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.” Corrigan made a pilgrimage to Princeton’s Firestone Library, which only reluctantly accepted Fitzgerald’s papers because he was a writer they dismissed as a “second-rate, Midwest hack,” just to see the real painting. She relates that even though no reviewer had even “the slightest idea of what the book was about,” in Cugat Fitzgerald “had the extraordinary luck to be matched with an illustrator—an artist—who got that the book was about reaching out, aspiring, for a mirage.” She points out that the image, hovering, like a sad angel (a disembodied angel, unlike Pietrzyk’s) over a lighted cityscape, appears to be the source of Nick’s allusion to Daisy as a “girl whose disembodied face floated among dark cornices and blinding signs.” Like Gatsby itself, Cugat’s painting was at one time completely ignored, literally tossed into a trash can.

 

Corrigan spoke about her book on September 5, 2015, at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., which  commemorated the 200th anniversary of the historic connection between the Library of Congress and Thomas Jefferson. Regardless of whether Jefferson would have agreed with Corrigan that “sink or swim” was the founding myth of America, so much American literature is obsessed with drowning, and The Great Gatsby, according to Corrigan, has references to water on every page. (“If you can find a page that doesn’t reference water,” Corrigan said, “send me an email tonight.”) And therefore Jefferson, whose personal library of more than 6,000 books at Monticello became the nation’s library after the British burned down the original Library of Congress, played a very important role in Corrigan’s reconstruction of the life and resurrection of the book’s life she chronicles.

 

Abby Yochelson, a reference librarian who specializes in literary research at the Library of Congress, was Corrigan’s Beatrice in taking her through the library’s extensive collections documenting how “the great novel about what it takes for a nobody to stay afloat in America” itself somehow managed to stay afloat after repeated drownings. She showed Corrigan examples of the cheaply constructed, pulp paper, rectangular books meant to fit in a soldier’s pockets—and meant to be read, at most, seven times before falling apart. Without these Armed Services Editions, or ASEs as they were called, or “funny paperbacks,” as Corrigan’s own father, who served on a destroyer escort during World War II, described them to her, the Fitzgerald revival in American classrooms would not have been possible. The Great Gatsby, once rotting in a Scribner’s warehouse, was now on the front lines, in soldier’s helmets as they crawled along the mud, or a cherished companion in prison camps in Europe and Japan. There is a photo of an ASE in the book, printed in double columns, and it is hard to see in its unimpressive form anything that could reverse the effect created by the literary consensus about Fitzgerald, expressed best (or worst) in the New York Times obituary in 1940, which barely mentioned Gatsby and summed up Fitzgerald’s life by intoning “the promise of his brilliant career was never fulfilled.”

 

In the question and answer session after her talk, Corrigan was asked if she ever wonders “if there is a Fitzgerald among us who is subject to the same fate.” After speculating that Nick’s voice “would have pulled me in,” she nevertheless admitted to wondering “if I had got Gatsby in the ‘20s would I have passed over it?” As Fitzgerald himself said at the time, no reviewer had the slightest idea what the book was about—this may have been because he had made a diagnosis no one else could see. And as Corrigan said to uncomfortable laughter, “Obviously if I’m overlooking people, I won’t be able to name them.”

 

In the context of speaking about writers like Melville, Dickinson, Keats, and Fitzgerald, who died thinking they were failures, Corrigan spoke of visiting Rockville, MD, four years prior for the annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival, and visiting the place, as she often had done before and has done since, where the grave of Scott and Zelda resides, St Mary’s Church, just off Rockville Pike. Young Scott regularly visited his relatives in Rockville when he was a boy, and when he was seven he was a “ribbon holder” at his cousin’s Celia Delihant’s home wedding. Later in life he returned from Paris to attend his father’s funeral at St Mary’s. Three years after that, Tender is the Night was published and included a passage some biographers believe is a description of that occasion.

 

It was very friendly leaving him there with all his relations

around him…Dick had no more ties here now and did not

believe he would come back….Good-by, my father—good-by,

all my fathers.

 

When Fitzgerald died in 1940, his body was brought to Pumphrey Funeral Home in Bethesda, MD, before burial, and when Zelda died in a sanitarium fire in 1948, she was buried with him. It is perhaps instructive to note that Fitzgerald dedicated his Tales of the Jazz Age, to “the notorious H.L. Mencken,” whose column “Baltimore and the Rest of the World” played on Mencken’s Old Line State roots. In his Evening Sun column, Mencken favorably compared Maryland with what he called the “Babbits, Booboisie and puritans” making up the rest of the American scene. Perhaps what Fitzgerald saw in his own life—the replacement of prerogatives earned for those passed on through inheritance, he also saw reflected in Mencken’s work. It is perhaps the same thing many people say they see today, forged of course by Fitzgerald’s original diagnosis, when they speak of America’s second “Gilded Age” that includes not only the glorification of money and celebrity, the selling out of the media, but also the marginalization of ethnic minorities and full frontal assault on civil society.

 

Last year’s F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival, held on October 10, a few weeks before Rockville city elections on November 3, honored Pulitzer Prize- and PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author Richard Ford with the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature and announced BettyJoyce Nash as the winner of the 2015 Short Story Contest for her story “Summer Enrichment.” Stewart O’Nan was among the panelists, a winner, like Pietrzyk, of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 1993, and whose most recent novel, West of Sunset, published this year, is about Fitzgerald’s last two years in Hollywood. The Rockville Little Theater presented the marathon seven-hour play Gatz, in which 13 actors read and enacted every word of the novel at the local F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater, the same venue where, a few weeks later, the newly minted mayor and council would be sworn in.

 

The election, largely a fight over maintaining the character of the city while allowing for development, featured a candidate on the parish council in the very church where Fitzgerald is buried, just a few feet off Rockville Pike, and where concerns about empty storefronts along that thoroughfare included charges about candidates being in the pockets of developers and counter-arguments in favor of one candidate’s decision to bring a major hotel chain to the area. Fitzgerald, whose novel celebrated the attempt to be something while saying, according to many critics, that the game is rigged, might have appreciated the ironic appropriateness of all of this so near his final resting place. But no matter his private reaction, he was always playing up to his “betters,” and, as Corrigan writes, was ever “the people pleaser,” so he might well have praised the hotel chain himself if in the presence of its supporters. Fitzgerald had ambivalent feelings about America after all, and ambivalence is at the heart of the book, and whatever side he might have taken, it is likely he would have draped the hotel chain and the conflict itself in gorgeous prose that would somehow, at the same time, manage to reflect the deep ambivalence at the heart of most human endeavors.

 

In contrast to today’s English departments in America, whose course descriptions, according to Corrigan, “might even turn Edmund Wilson into a business major” because of their “aggressive absurdity” in favor of theory, Gatsby has become an American literary ambassador in colleges all over the world. Corrigan, who teaches literature courses at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where she has yet to persuade the administration to fund a seminar on Gatsby, writes of its strong presence in places like Doha, Tehran, and cities all over China. The winning entry of the 2010 F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest, “The Essay,” by Shweta Sen, is about an international student who arrives to live with his unmarried aunt in Bethesda, MD, and takes place at the local community college, presumably in Rockville, where the narrator, an English professor, manages to unleash hidden reserves in this previously mediocre student after assigning him an essay with an unusual, but for him, liberating and transforming prompt.

 

The story also recalls the reach and universality of Fitzgerald’s book even in its description of the callowness of college students. In the same way her narrator’s now “digitized students” cannot express their thoughts, one recalls that Gatsby’s narrator, Nick, thinking back on his college classmates says,  “for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.” In “The Essay,” the narrator’s prompt, “I’d rather be…” unleashes the thrill of self-invention in the student that even readers in China respond to in Gatsby. As Sen writes, “they were all caged birds, flapping their wings ineffectually, incapacitated by circumstance, society, self and a host of indeterminate factors.” But this particular prompt, at least for this one international student, is transformative. His writing earns an “A” and the beleaguered teacher finally has an essay she can enjoy.

 

As Corrigan writes, “The Great Gatsby has gone a-roving all over the world as a literary ambassador of the American Dream.” And whether the international reader damns or praises the country it depicts, the depiction itself is transformative for many of them. Corrigan quotes Jonathan Franzen, who rereads the book every year or two and has said that, “Fitzgerald tells the central fable of America, and yet you feel like you’re eating whipped cream.”

 

April 10, 2015, marked the 90th anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby, the book that Corrigan cannot emphasize enough was nearly forgotten within a decade of its birth. Corrigan, who has spent a lifetime with the book, even touring with it for the National Education Association’s Big Read project, writes of her approach as “a personal excursion into the novel I love more than any other.” She goes on a “floating tourist trap” called the Great Gatsby Boat Tour and buys a T-Shirt with the logo “I party with Jay Gatsby,” while at the same time admitting that at first reading she didn’t get the book that she now insists “contains the most beautiful sentences ever written about America.”

 

In one sense her book may be seen as motivated by this confession— the confession is in some respect the sun of which the chapters of her book are only the green spots seen after staring too long at that sun, a confession that reflects the original dismissal of the book she writes about by the reviewers and critics of its own time, the book whose early life, early death and late resurrection she so lovingly chronicles and whose fate cannot help but to haunt her as she holds one of the most influential book reviewing positions of her own time. She grew up in Queens, NY, near the very “valley of ashes” the book’s famous dust jacket depicts, and went on long drives along Long Island with her family, looking out the car window at the very landscape the book describes. Once upon a time, when rereading the book early in her career, she was startled to come across her own last name in a list of Gatsby party guests:

 

“I felt a start, as though the novel had looked through my intellectual pretensions and found me out: At best, a West Egger…more likely, a valley of ashes dweller.”