oddly familiar

p. 77:

They were composed of oddly familiar pieces of ivory.

After some unsubtle prompting, Nick notices Wolfshiem’s cufflinks, which are made from human molars. I can remember the first time I read this, and thinking “Huh, kind of cool.” Now I find the concept barbaric. What has happened in the decades since?

Well, adolescents are not fully developed humans, most particularly lacking in the sense of humanity that can only be developed by definition in living. As a teen I could have worn a piece of human bone on my clothing without ever thinking about the person whose parts decorated my shirt. Now having lost various bits of my own through careless age and sundry violence, there are pieces of me adrift in the universe and I wouldn’t kindly regard their use as fashion. And even if their former owners wouldn’t care, I couldn’t wear someone else’s bodily fragments; it is too much of a denial of their humanity and a display of deficiency in mine.

It’s not just me that’s changed, but the world at large has changed since I first read about molar cufflinks, and of course changed even more since the book was published between the world wars. Wolfshiem is the only notably ethnic character in an uber-WASPy book, and his Jewish background is a terrible contrast to his accessorizing. Twenty years after the book’s publication, the world was horrified by reports of lampshades made from human skin, decorating the Nazi chambers at Buchenwald. It’s hard to read about Meyer Wolfshiem’s accessorial pride now without projecting the character into his future, reading sadly about the concentration camps and angrily tossing his cufflinks into the trash.

A sign of a world beyond both morality and irony: today you can get your very own replica molar cufflinks for around forty dollars, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find parts of the world where you could get the real thing for less.

full belly

p. 75:

Then he went out on the sidewalk and they shot him three times in his full belly and drove away.

Meyer Wolfshiem compact tale of his friend’s execution takes less than a page. The words Fitzgerald puts in his mouth are creatively efficient. For example, instead of describing the restaurant’s windows as darkened against the slowly rising sun, he says ‘if we’d of raised the blinds we’d of seen daylight‘ – conveying not only that the hour was so late that it was early, but that they’d had the blinds down all through the feast.

It wasn’t enough to say that Rosy was shot in the stomach – he was shot in a full belly, a belly full of the repast shared through a long evening with friends who knew their time together would end, and probably not pleasantly. I like the way this small detail reinforces the extended pleasures of the night even as it marks the fatal delivery of the executioners’ bullets.

across the street

p. 74:

This is a nice restaurant here … But I like across the street better!

Nick and Gatsby meet Meyer Wolfshiem for lunch in an elegant restaurant in midtown Manhattan. It’s the kind of place where the headwaiter knows to install a highball in your hand before delivering a succulent meal to your table. But Mr. Wolfshiem prefers the place across the street, an under-ventilated, cramped little joint where he’d spent many nights drinking and eating with his old friends, right up until the night that one of them was called away from the table only to be shot to death in front of the restaurant.

Why does nostalgia so often attach itself to horrible moments? All things pass, all things must end, and this includes the best and the worst that life has to offer. We never want the good times to end, and the better they are in the moment, the more we might build them and cherish them and protect them – but these times will end anyway, for time and fate are relentless and heartless. So the end is necessarily abrupt and painful, no matter how long it was in coming or inevitable it may have been. And yet, the end is part and parcel of the intensity of the joyful moments, inextricably linked to the electric vitality of the good times. To remember the end is to pay tribute to the entire journey.

And that’s how it’s possible for Mr. Wolfshiem to look fondly back on the night his friend Rosy Rosenthal was executed after dinner at his favorite restaurant.