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The Camino of Gatsby

Monday, 21 August, 2017

The annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby is undertaken not just for the pleasure of rediscovering a classic. This tradition is also an occasion for learning about the persisting role of the masterpiece in modern culture. Take Camino Island, John Grisham’s latest thriller about stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, including Gatsby, and the workings of the literary black market.

The story begins with the theft of five of Fitzgerald’s manuscripts from the Firestone Library at Princeton University and it then moves to resort town on a Florida Island for clues about the heist. Although the FBI and agents working for Princeton’s insurance company are hunting the robbers, Grisham focuses on a novelist pursuing an independent investigation. Snippet:

The imposter borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual professor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford. In his letter, on perfectly forged college stationery, “Professor Manchin” claimed to be a budding scholar of F. Scott Fitzgerald and was keen to see the great writer’s “manuscripts and papers” during a forthcoming trip to the East Coast. Camino Island The letter was addressed to Dr. Jeffrey Brown, Director of Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University. It arrived with a few others, was duly sorted and passed along, and eventually landed on the desk of Ed Folk, a career junior librarian whose task, among several other monotonous ones, was to verify the credentials of the person who wrote the letter.

Ed received several of these letters each week, all in many ways the same, all from self-proclaimed Fitzgerald buffs and experts, and even from the occasional true scholar. In the previous calendar year, Ed had cleared and logged in 190 of these people through the library. They came from all over the world and arrived wide-eyed and humbled, like pilgrims before a shrine. In his thirty-four years at the same desk, Ed had processed all of them. And, they were not going away. F. Scott Fitzgerald continued to fascinate. The traffic was as heavy now as it had been three decades earlier. These days, though, Ed was wondering what could possibly be left of the great writer’s life that had not been pored over, studied at great length, and written about. Not long ago, a true scholar told Ed that there were now at least a hundred books and over ten thousand published academic articles on Fitzgerald the man, the writer, his works, and his crazy wife.

And he drank himself to death at forty-four! What if he’d lived into old age and kept writing? Ed would need an assistant, maybe two, perhaps even an entire staff. But then Ed knew that an early death was often the key to later acclaim (not to mention greater royalties).


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