THE FAR SIDE OF PARADISE (362 pp.)Arthur MizenerHoughfon Mifflin ($4).
Once there was a writer who drank too much.
For some writers the story ends there, but not for F. Scott Fitzgerald. With the publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, he became a legend, the symbol and embodiment of all the gaudy and juvenile excesses lumped under that handy misnomer, the Jazz Age. After Fitzgerald's death in Hollywood in 1940, the legend persisted, but with an important addition: the charming playboy was mourned as a great writer who had tragically dissipated his talent. To some intellectuals, the Fitzgerald story seemed the perfect prop to bolster a shaky thesis: that the U.S. is culturally too anemic to nourish its good writers. By implication, Fitzgerald's dipsomaniacal botch of his life derived from and was part of the national botch.
Far from withering, the Fitzgerald legend is livelier today than at any time since its hero's death. Unlike many literary "revivals," the interest in his books is real, not the byproduct of a publisher's promotion. At literary shindigs nowadays the Fitzgerald worshipers generally outnumber the Hemingway and Faulkner fans. Budd Schulberg's The Disenchanted, largely a fictional pry into Fitzgerald's private life, has sold more than 250,000 copies.
Arthur Mizener, an English professor at Minnesota's Carleton College, has tried to do in a biography what Schulberg failed to do in his novel: root out the sources of Fitzgerald's failure as a man and evaluate his worth as a writer. If The Far Side of Paradise is not a distinguished biography, it is at least an honest and sympathetic effort to see Fitzgerald as he really was. And, like The Disenchanted, it is practically insured against failure or dullness by its materialirritating and fascinating in almost equal parts.
Two-Cylinder Complex. The handsome, blond freshman who went to Princeton from St. Paul in the fall of 1913 had been a thoroughly spoiled youngster ("I didn't know till 15 that there was auyone in the world except me . . .")*When he started school at the age of seven, it was on condition that he go only half days, whichever half he chose. Later, when he made the football team at Newman School, the quarterback threatened in the middle of a game to beat up Fitzgerald because he didn't have the guts to make a tackle. Already, as he did throughout his life, Fitzgerald judged himself with ruthless accuracy: "I knew that at bottom I lacked the essentials. At the last crisis, I knew I had no real courage, perseverance or self-respect."
An insatiable climber whose Princeton ambition was to become a big-man-on-campus, Fitzgerald was embarrassed both by his Irish mother and by his father's job as a wholesale grocer's salesman. Years later he wrote to Novelist John O'Hara: "I am half black Irish and half old American stock with the usual exaggerated ancestral pretensions . . . Being born in that atmosphere of crack, wise crack and countercrack I developed a two cylinder inferiority complex ... I spent my youth in alternately crawling in front of the kitchen maids and insulting the great."