Jane Harris is a novelist. Her first novel, The Observations, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction in 2007. Her second novel, Gillespie and I, is currently longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize. Below Jane discusses F. Scott Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby Stories.
Jane Harris on The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Having read both The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night in my twenties, it was some years later that I discovered Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby Stories. They were recommended to me by my first husband, Tom (still my husband after 20 years, but I like to keep him on his toes). At the time, I was under commission to write a screenplay. Tom suggested that these darkly comic tales of a Hollywood screenwriter who has fallen upon hard times would amuse me - and he was right. Indeed, I was destined to enjoy this collection because it encompasses three of my great loves: short fiction, comedy, and the early days of Hollywood. As a child, I was a voracious reader and enjoyed not only children's books such as the Just William stories and the Molesworth series, but also whatever adult fiction I could filch from my mother, including the shorter works of Dorothy Parker and various novels by Patricia Highsmith. I also revelled in the escape provided by old movies, and familiarized myself with the Hollywood canon thanks to Saturday and Sunday afternoon TV slots. The studios of Tinseltown seemed a distant, magical place to this Glasgow kid and I probably knew more than might be expected about Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant et al. I particularly enjoyed films that dealt with the business of moviemaking or screenwriting, such as Singin' in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place.
Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby Stories take us right to the heart of that world, specifically into the writer's cellblock of offices on one of the lots. Pat Hobby is an ageing writer who used to be 'a good man for structure', in demand for original scripts. However, by the time we meet him, he has become an alcoholic hack who has to scratch around, begging the executives for humdrum rewrite jobs, in between hopping from bar to bar. 'For an old-timer like Pat, what people you sat with at lunch was more important in getting along than what you dictated in your office. This was no art, as he often said, this was an industry.' In most of the stories, Pat is broke but hits upon some scam that he hopes will either endear him to the execs or help him bag a writing job. Alas, invariably, he ends up with egg on his face.
In my very favourite story - 'Boil Some Water - Lots of It' - Pat has spent the morning polishing the script for a 'hospital picture', managing to come up with just one line, spoken by a doctor: 'Boil some water – lots of it.' At midday, in the canteen, having failed to inveigle his way on to a seat at the Big Table with the studio bosses (where, in the heady days of his success, he used to be welcome), he makes do with sitting beside a pretty nurse from the First Aid Station. During lunch, he tries to impress her by quizzing her about what might happen at the scene of an accident - specifically about what would happen after a doctor gives bystanders instructions to 'boil some water'.
As they are talking, Pat notices a lowly extra, dressed as a Russian Cossack with fierce moustache. The studio is making a big costume drama set in Russia, the kind of important movie that Pat will nevermore get his hands on. This bit-player brazenly pulls out a chair at the executive table where Pat himself had hoped to sit. Pat is outraged at his cheek.
Someone at the table said: "That's taken." But the man drew out the chair and sat down.
"Got to eat somewhere," he remarked, with a grin.
A shiver went over the near-by tables. Pat Hobby stared with his mouth ajar. It was as if someone had crayoned Donald Duck into The Last Supper.
When requested, the man refuses to move. Before anyone can persuade him, Pat grabs a heavy tray and fells the man by bashing him over the head with all his strength. The extra's audacity has riled him, and perhaps he hopes this extreme act will find him favour. However - just Pat's luck - it turns out that the extra is actually the writer on the Russian picture, trying to play a gag on his studio-head buddies. Instead of being hailed as a hero, Pat is destined for disgrace. As he makes a hasty exit, the on-set doctor rushes over to help the injured man, calling out instructions to the restaurant manageress: 'Boil some water! Lots of it!' But Pat doesn't hang around to see what happens next.
This is a very short story, only seven pages long, so it is a masterpiece not only of structure but also of compression. Fitzgerald is able to convey so much with so few words. And, like all the best comedies, the stories in this collection are underscored by tragedy. The gag is undercut by the fact that Pat is a loser, a tragi-comic figure, dodging one humiliation after another.
The Pat Hobby Stories are particularly touching because of Fitgerald's own personal circumstances at the time. When they were first published in Esquire magazine, in 1939, Fitzgerald's career had hit rock bottom. As a writer of prose, he was seen as belonging to a previous era, the 1920s. The tales were written while he was under contract to Universal Studios. He was living in a modest apartment, a washed-up novelist with a drink problem who had turned Hollywood hack. Those who knew him maintain that the stories drew heavily upon his own experiences as a screenwriter. Arnold Gingrich, Esquire's editor, referred to them as Fitzgerald's 'last word from his last home, for much of what he felt about Hollywood and about himself permeated these stories'.
Nonetheless, Gingrich was a fan, and happy to publish Fitzgerald's tales. For his part, Fitzgerald was desperate for cash, frequently haggling for a higher rate, and pleading for advance payment. He was still revising the final stories in the book when he died of a heart attack in 1940. The series remained uncollected for two decades until published in book form by Scribner. Apart from a few studio jobs, these snapshots from Hollywood were Fitzgerald's only income for the last two difficult years of his life.
Therein lies the true poignancy of this collection.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]