The Cruise of the Rolling Junk
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
“The Cruise of the Rolling Junk”
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Introduction by Julian Evans
Foreword by Paul Theroux
Publisher: Hesperus Press Limited
Price: $11.95 (paper)
After their tempestuous and now legendary courtship in Montgomery, while Lt. Fitzgerald was stationed at Fort Sheridan, and their on-again, off-again engagement, Scott Fitzgerald and the belle Zelda Sayre were married in New York City on April 3, 1920. Zelda was an immature 19 years old, the spoiled child of a rigid judge father and ineffectual mother.
The Fitzgeralds instantly became the tabloid darlings of their day, the golden couple. They honeymooned in and were thrown out of the Biltmore. Scott got into a fist fight on a visit to Princeton. In May, after several weeks of public shenanigans in New York City, including riding on the hood of a taxicab and jumping into the Union Square fountain, they rented their first home, a cottage in Westport, Connecticut. By July, they were exhausted and bored, and Zelda was homesick.
As Scott tells the story, one morning Zelda got a craving for real Southern biscuits and Alabama peaches, so the young couple jumped into their used 1918 Marmon automobile and drove to Montgomery, twelve hundred miles away. It took eight days, and it was not a smooth trip.
“Cruise of the Rolling Junk” is the story of that journey.
The car was not in good shape, to say the least. It seems the frame had been broken and welded (Zelda had driven it over a fire hydrant), and the tires were worn out as was the battery. In the course of the journey one rear tire came completely off and they broke down several times. They had no tool kit.
Scott nicknamed the car “The Rolling Junk” and the model, the “Expenso.”
Scott knew absolutely nothing about cars; he drove.
Zelda could not read a map; she navigated.
The roads were, of course, terrible.
Scott wrote up the adventure afterwards, but even though he was at the height of his popularity the piece was so long that it was refused by “The Saturday Evening Post” and others and finally appeared in three installments in “Motoring” magazine. Fitzgerald was paid not the $2,500 he hoped for but only two or three hundred dollars.
Now it has been reprinted by Hesperus Press in an attractive small paperback.
The story itself is an entertainment. The two are innocents abroad on the highway. They have to deal with breakdowns, bad weather, getting lost, rapacious mechanics, frightening rednecks and even perhaps, an attempted highway robbery. But, besides its readability, “Rolling Junk” is noteworthy in other ways.
Fitzgerald understood early the central importance that the automobile would have in American culture. He could see that it would offer young people privacy they had never had, and revolutionize “dating.”
He was also one of the first to utilize cars in his fiction. As biographer Jeffrey Meyers notes, a major character is killed in a wreck in “This Side of Paradise,” Myrtle Wilson is killed by Gatsby’s fantastic car in “The Great Gatsby” and Nicole Diver almost forces the family car off a cliff in “Tender Is the Night.”
There is even a scene in front of Gatsby’s mansion in which a tire falls off a car about to leave the party.
According to travel writer Paul Theroux in his Foreword, Fitzgerald may even be credited with inventing the subgenre of the long American car trip. This will be expanded and developed by Henry Miller in “The Air Conditioned Nightmare,” John Steinbeck in “Travels with Charlie,” Jack Kerouac in “On the Road,” and William Least-Heat Moon in “Blue Highways.” In all these accounts the car becomes a well-known character to the reader and is usually given an actual name.
Unlike the others, however, Fitzgerald’s is not a narrative in which the reader learns much about America. Fitzgerald had little interest in landscapes and lacked the kind of class/social conscience that would lead him to comment on conditions of poverty, race, class and manners. The Fitzgeralds travelled to be observed, to attract attention, not to study and report on the folk they encountered.
Zelda even had a white knickerbocker suit made for herself, to match Scott’s, and this so scandalized folks south of the Mason-Dixon line they had trouble getting a room in better hotels.
The tone of this piece is pure Fitzgerald. The pair are filled with optimism, bright hopes, but at every turn the dream turns to disappointment, and impulsiveness threatens to become regret. As Julian Evans says in his Introduction, for Fitzgerald “the path of life leads towards disillusion.” Montgomery becomes, in their minds, an Eden to which they are returning, but however fast they drive—and at one point they exceed 70 mph—they can never get there.
When they at last arrive at Zelda’s parents’ home they are told by a neighbor that it has been in vain. The Sayres have travelled to Connecticut on a surprise visit to THEM. This was not actually what happened, but this is the ending Fitzgerald constructed for his tale, to demonstrate the utter futility of their quest, for biscuits, for perfect peaches, for the unrecoverable past.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”