Review: Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby

Careless People

“…[C]oincidence has its own beauties. Even such small historical symmetries can suggest there are patterns all around us, reminders of how expansive the possibilities truly are.” Sarah Churchwell, CARELESS PEOPLE

From the Publisher:

Since its publication in 1925, The Great Gatsby has become one of the world’s best-loved books, delighting readers across the world. Careless People tells the true story behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, exploring in newly rich detail the relation of Fitzgerald’s classic to the chaotic world he in which he lived. Fitzgerald set his novel in 1922, and Careless People carefully reconstructs the crucial months during which Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald returned to New York in the autumn of 1922—the parties, the drunken weekends at Great Neck, Long Island, the drives back into the city to the jazz clubs and speakeasies, the casual intersection of high society and organized crime, and the growth of celebrity culture of which the Fitzgeralds themselves were the epitome. And for the first time it returns to the story of Gatsby the high-profile murder that provided a crucial inspiration for Fitzgerald’s tale.

With wit and insight, Sarah Churchwell traces the genesis of a masterpiece, discovering where fiction comes from and how it takes shape in the mind of a genius. Blending biography and history with lost and forgotten newspaper accounts, letters, and newly discovered archival material, Careless People is the biography of a book, telling the extraordinary tale of how F. Scott Fitzgerald created a classic and in the process discovered modern America.

My Recommendation

Imagine Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald reading the morning newspaper while nursing their hangovers,  and discussing the sordid murder of a pastor and his parishioner.  See how Scott sharpens his capacities to exist both “within and without” of his life–judging others and himself for their behavior, but powerless or unwilling to stop it. Experience the delicious words of Zelda adding color to the text and settling into the subconscious of her husband. Understand the fascinating workings of a national mentality and its influence on the everyday lives of its people.

Sarah Churchwell succeeds in presenting these ideas in CARELESS PEOPLE–never weighing down the reader with her meticulous research, but rather, dazzling with her ability to weave narrative from fact. Churchwell presents fresh insights on material that has been written about (almost to exhaustion) for decades, and her excitement over discoveries connecting notes from Fitzgerald, newspapers from the time, and countless historical documents and artifacts to THE GREAT GATSBY, is contagious.

If ever a book were written for Fitzgerald, Gatsby, or Jazz Age enthusiasts, CARELESS PEOPLE is that book. Seamlessly blending biography and history through a true murder mystery, CARELESS PEOPLE reveals the inspiration and influences for THE GREAT GATSBY in captivating ways. It is a book you will want to read with a pencil for underlining in one hand, and a cocktail in the other, and it would make for excellent discussion at a book club. I give CARELESS PEOPLE my highest recommendation.


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