That Summer, 1922: A Counter Memoir By Thomas Buchanan
See Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here, and Part IV here.
Yes, there is all that business about swapping the cars and who was actually driving—Daisy or Gatsby—when Myrtle was struck down. As I have admitted, Carraway did get some things right or at best half-right in his memoir. Daisy and I read the book when it first appeared in 1925. Afterwards, she tossed it into the trash and, despite its enormous popularity over the years, we never looked at it again, until Daisy suggested the memoir course and I began to plan this counter-memoir. It was painful but in order to proceed with an accurate version of those now distant events, I had to force myself to re-read it, fifty-five years later. So much has changed since that era when we lived as though the good times would never end. Now that I’ve restricted myself to one gin and tonic a day and haven’t touched a cigarette since Ike took us out of Korea, it’s hard to believe how much we all drank and smoked back then.
I bought a used paperback edition at the community college bookstore (Lillian Civette had scrawled her name on the inside cover, dotting each “I” with a heart) and I read it aloud to Daisy over the course of a few evenings. Now and then, she would stop me, shake her head, and say she couldn’t believe we did this or that, or said such devastating things to each other. I often had to remind her that Carraway took many liberties with the chain of events and often put words in our mouths. I would also stop reading at times to take notes when I thought a particular event or conversation would require my attention for this memoir. I used a separate notebook as my used book had been so marked up there was hardly any room in the margins. I grinned when Lillian scribbled next to my name Racist! or Upper-Class Snob! or Chauvinist Pig!—I imagined she had been merely copying remarks made by her English instructor. It never ceases to amuse me how easily people apply the political cant of the present to the prevailing customs of the past.
At times, as I read aloud, I would add my comments to the story, sometimes to help minimize the pain Daisy might feel, and at other times to set the facts straight. When we first read the book we were so astonished we barely spoke about it. But now, from the perspective of a half century, with every character except the two of us dead (Carraway and Jordan married a year after the book came out and were killed instantly on their honeymoon when their car spun out of control on a treacherous stretch of curvy mountain road in, of all places, Montenegro), I felt more like confronting the details than I ever had. I had suppressed so many of these until I began the memoir. I also found my commentary increased the farther into the book I got, mainly because Carraway grows increasingly unreliable as the events draw towards their horrible conclusion.
Any careful reader, though obviously not my dear Lillian (who I imagine is now on the Dean’s List at Florida State University), will observe Carraway’s inconsistencies, implausible details, and self-deceptions. I ask you, what writer boasts that he’s the most honest person he knows except a dishonest one? What could be more implausible than a self-absorbed individual like Carraway forgetting his thirtieth birthday? We all knew it—in fact, it was why Daisy invited Gatsby and Carraway to our house for lunch that blistering, end of summer day. She knew I wouldn’t want Gatsby in our home under normal circumstances, but the birthday gave her some leverage. Carraway doesn’t mention that we all toasted his thirtieth. Daisy also had a gift for him—a pair of gold monogrammed cufflinks, what we then called “cuff buttons”—but it was forgotten as the day unraveled. I suspected the way Jordan glanced at him during our toast that she also had a present in store.
Carraway makes it appear that the real reason behind the lunch was so Daisy and Gatsby could declare their love for each other in front of me. But that is preposterous, as anyone who knew Daisy would know that she would never allow herself to do such a thing in the presence of others and never in our house with our daughter in the next room. She may have gotten muddle-headed at times but she had too much decorum to make a circus out of such an announcement. Still, I could detect there was something going on between Gatsby and Daisy and I resented it. It was difficult for me to read aloud the part in which she practically makes love to Gatsby in our salon while I was tending to the drinks. Daisy tearfully admitted she had carried on like that but she said her behavior that entire day was a result of sheer fright. On the basis of their end-of-summer romance, Gatsby had been pressuring her to break with me and she was completely on edge. She did not want a scene. She was glad when Pammy made an entrance with her nurse but our daughter’s sudden presence made her realize all the more our inescapable bond.
Hoping to avoid a scene, I decided to take matters into my own hands and confront Gatsby privately then and there with what I found out from Walter about his business partners and their operations. I thought that once he was aware of what I knew he would quietly back off, maybe even move away. He knew as well as I that Daisy would have nothing to do with a common crook. I invited him out to the veranda pretending I wanted to show him the view. But to my disappointment Carraway decided to join us and I was forced to go through the motions of small talk. As I see it, had Carraway not intruded himself at that precise moment the sad sequence of events which marked that evening may never have been set into motion.
And then Daisy, in a state of panic, but still her impulsive self, ridiculously suggests we drive into Manhattan. Why? To escape the oppressive heat! Daisy never considered what she was going to say before she said it—it was part of her charm but also led others to think she was superficial when she really was not. I don’t think she ever realized, though, even on our second reading, how often Carraway enjoyed making fun of her spontaneous conversational habits in his memoir. Her notion to drive into the city made absolutely no sense but I decided in my frustration to take her at her word and insisted we do just that, especially when I noticed she was herself beginning to resist her idea. I wonder what that sort of emotional strategy is called: someone (child, friend, wife, husband) suggests doing something absurd that one does not want to do but then in anger the person who doesn’t want to go along instead insists on doing just that, now forcing the other’s hand.
Why did I insist I drive Gatsby’s car and he drive mine? Don’t think I haven’t asked myself that question over and over throughout the years. Even now, as I bring all of these moments back into the present I cannot be sure. But here are three reasons: First, it was a gaudy, new, expensive automobile that I had seen advertised in the Saturday Evening Post and I was curious to feel how it handled on the open road. Second, I didn’t want Gatsby to pack us all into his car and to take control of the situation. Third, I wanted to be with Daisy alone to tell her the unsavory details of her lover’s so-called “drug stores” that Carraway earlier prevented me from telling Gatsby.
But with a flirtatious gesture, Daisy went conveniently off with Gatsby and I found myself one-upped in the enormous front seat of Gatsby’s car with Jordan and Carraway who both seemed irritable and not at all sympathetic with my situation. Were they on Gatsby’s side? Did they want to see Daisy run off with him? Did they both prefer that mendacious, murderous criminal to me?
It was a fact, as Carraway reports, that Gatsby’s roadster was low on gas and that I stopped to fill up at Wilson’s garage, where I learned he was planning to take Myrtle out west. I find it difficult to deal with pathetic people but I did promise to help George out by selling him the old coupe. As I write this I realize that a part of my motive to switch cars was to force Gatsby to be seen in an old car I was ready to discard. Although I found Myrtle sensual in a way that Daisy, with her boyish flapper figure, wasn’t, I was growing tired of her continued whining that I leave Daisy for her, something I repeatedly informed her I would never do. And I did not like the fact that she had taken to telephoning me at home. When paying Wilson, I did not notice Myrtle peering at us from the upstairs window. I believe Carraway when he claims she did and that she jealously mistook Jordan for my wife, an error that proved fatal a few hours later.
How the five of us wound up in a stifling suite at the Plaza Hotel at four that sweltering afternoon is anyone’s guess. Carraway doesn’t attempt to explain it and with all the nervous tension and afternoon drinks and forced hilarity, I could tell from the moment we entered that suite something awful would happen, something irreversible. It seemed that everyone had turned against me and I felt like a cornered animal. Here in an anonymous hotel room Daisy might do what she would never do at home and it momentarily occurred to me perhaps it was why we were here—she engineered it even if she hadn’t thought it out fully.
No one appeared to want a drink, though Daisy asked me to order up ice for mint juleps, her favorite drink from Louisville days. Ironically, we could hear the sounds of a wedding in the Plaza ballroom. The conversation turned imbecilic as we joked about some Yale imposter who fainted in the heat at our Louisville wedding. Daisy brought the topic up and I quickly saw it was not one Gatsby cared to hear about—first of all our wedding and then someone who pretended to have attended a college he hadn’t. I could see he was uncomfortable with a past he wasn’t a part of. I sensed an advantage. Daisy herself had given me the opportunity and I pounced. I questioned him about Oxford.
Daisy, bless her soul, had provided me—maybe unwittingly, maybe not—with an edge: our shared past. I ignored his inane fiction about Oxford, even though he scored some points with the others, and moved directly to the issue: what was he trying to do to our marriage? Of course, I fooled around and enjoyed my affairs but I had faith in the institution of marriage and would never consider leaving Daisy for anyone else. (I can now hear my star English major Lillian: Hypocrite!). I could see Gatsby was ready to make his proud announcement but it turned out to be a terrible error: it was one thing for him to claim that Daisy loved him and didn’t love me; but it was quite another thing for him to go on and say that Daisy “never” loved me. I knew she felt no love for me at that moment but I also felt confident she could not honestly own up to the “never,” and I was right. She wavered; I felt it coming; she could not give Gatsby—who was now bullying her as I so often regrettably did—what he required most of all: the absolute absence of the past. How he must have despised me for embodying a past he could never eliminate.
I was not sure when or even if I would introduce Walter Chase to the present company. He was my secret maneuver but when I saw Gatsby’s expression after Daisy acknowledged that she did love me once, I didn’t think I would need to run it. So I simply challenged Gatsby next with what I learned about his partnership with Meyer Wolfsheim and their crooked side-street drug stores. I wanted to expose him in front of Daisy. But instead of denying my accusation, however, he fumbles the ball again: he himself brings up Walter. I will never forget the expression on Daisy’s face when she finally understood that the man she thought of leaving me for was nothing but a common crook—worse, one deeply involved in organized criminal activity. Even Carraway notes her expression of terror. I could hardly believe my luck. The game was over. Yale 14-Oxford 7.
Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of The Best American Essays. He lives in New York City and was always intrigued by what Fitzgerald wrote about Tom Buchanan: “I suppose he’s the best character I’ve ever done.”
See part six here.