Finished re-reading The Great Gatsby. I'm teaching it this semester to my AP class. And yes, it's a beautiful, amazing book filled with lyricism and mordant wit, and so forth and so on.
But every time I read this book, the same part stumps me. Everyone dogs Twain for ending Huck Finn the way he did, but for my money, the most botched ending in American Literature is the end of Gatsby. If you haven't looked at it lately, there are a series of marvelously written scenes bringing us to the denoument when Gatsby finally confronts Tom and says, Daisy doesn't love you, she loves me. We know, of course, what Gatsby doesn't - that what's past is past, and the lost chance for happiness can never be recovered. And that denoument, when it comes, promises the perfect fulfilment of a story that is at once tragic, comic, human, and poetic.
Only that's not the denoument.
Instead, Daisy, shaken up after the contretemps, takes Gatsby's car and mows down Myrtle Wilson, who evidently thought it contained her lover, Tom. Gatsby, of course, noble to the end, resolves to take the fall for the hit and run. Meanwhile, Myrtle's husband, with synapses that fire like molasses, has finally doped out his wife has a lover, manages through some off-stage detective work to track down the one man innocent of both his wife's death as well as her seduction and plugs Gatsby - who has conveniently chosen that moment for a late-season float in the swimming pool.
Yes, I know, Gatsby's a Christ Image. Gotcha. And Fitzgerald foreshadowed all of it by sprinkling car wrecks through the book like raisins in rice pudding. Sure. And it shows how wonderful Gatsby is, offering himself in one last gesture for the woman he loves. If you say so.
It also lets us have the scene at Gatsby's funeral when we meet the dad. Meeting the dad, I'll admit, is pretty cool.
But a car wreck? How likely is it jealous Tom would leave Daisy alone with Gatsby after learning his wife and the G-Man have been carrying a torch for each other for the last five years? Fitzgerald manages to make even this seem probable, which is a tribute to his art. But why would Daisy be driving? In order to calm herself after the ordeal, Nick informs us. Yeah, right. But buying the first two improbabilities, can anyone seriously believe that Myrtle, who has been locked in her bedroom by George Wilson, would pick the precise moment to burst from her prison and run to the street, when the tear-blind Daisy is at the wheel?
I feel being asked to swallow three such aberrations in so short a space is too much.
What the ending does do, is tidy three loose ends: Gatsby, Myrtle, and George all get removed from the board. And without a big crack-up, the story would not only be too short even for a decent novella, it wouldn't have enough payoff. We've had to wade through pages of beauty, mordant wit, and lyricism, and we need a bigger punchline than what "Winter Dreams" managed to deliver in half the time.
I can almost hear my two esteemed colleagues Chris Bundy and James Iredell harumphing haughtily and setting fingertips to keypad to fire off a good, stiff rebuttal. What about the car wreck in Lolita, I hear them cry. You don't have any problems with that do you? And it's at least as unlikely as Daisy's wreck.
The point is, Lolita's mother is killed at the start of the action, not at the conclusion. I have nothing against starting a story with a far-fetched coincidence, I'm all for it. But lugging in a coincidence to wrap up the action ain't Hoyle. You'd hate a story, and rightly hate it too, that resolves a character's problem with a fantastic winning streak in a casino. But would there be any serious objection to a story that began that way? That's my whole point. Coincidences are fine for starting a story, but the unlikely payoff won't do for the end. And it doesn't improve matters if the slot machine comes up lemons instead of cherries.