F Scott Fitzgerald aficionados were given a surprise treat in the early 1980s when a last, given-up-for-lost batch of short stories was published. The previously uncollected tales in both volumes of The Price Was High were a mixed bag. Flappers and philosophers were in short supply. One story was an obituary for the author's mother, written while she was still alive. Another was set in the ninth century. All were written for money, the latter ones to pay off substantial debts accrued through fast living. Fitzgerald's heart, one suspects, was not in some of them, but nonetheless we were thankful for what vestiges of genius we got.
Thirty years later, after believing the Fitzgerald well to be dry, along comes another surprise in the shape of this little curio from Hesperus Press. With The Cruise of the Rolling Junk Hesperus surpasses its unique selling point of restoring "unjustly neglected" classics: for many, this obscure Fitzgerald tale is not only forgotten, it is completely unknown (the adventure is downplayed to a mere couple of lines in Matthew J Bruccoli's definitive biography, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur). In fact as it is the first ever UK publication of a work by one of the 20th-century's greatest writers, we could even be so bold as to call this a publishing coup for Hesperus.
Fitzgerald summed his tale up best in a 1934 letter to Max Perkins at Scribner's, terming it "a long, supposedly humorous account of an automobile journey". The "supposedly humorous" shows the lack of faith that Fitzgerald could occasionally have in his work, even in those early heady glory days filled with promise. It was written in 1922, the same year as The Beautiful and Damned, but the adventure actually took place two years earlier, shortly after Fitzgerald's resounding success with his debut, This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald hoped his "25,000 word touring serial" would get snapped up by the Saturday Evening Post and earn him $2,500. But the paper rejected it, and despite rewrites and appeals to his agent, Fitzgerald had to settle in the end for a measly $300 from Motoring magazine. Furthermore, the instant success he envisioned turned out to be an agonising waiting game, with the finished result appearing in print in 1924, two whole years after he had written it.
The premise for the road trip was simple. Zelda, now based with Scott in Connecticut, sorely missed the biscuits and peaches from her childhood in her native Alabama. And so one morning, on a whim - and perhaps exhibiting a flash of that recklessness that would in time engulf and ruin the pair of them - Scott decides that they will leave immediately for the south. What's more, they will drive. He irons out his wife's doubts by drawing "an ethereal picture", explaining:
"how we would roll southward along the glittering boulevards of many cities, then, by way of quiet lanes and fragrant hollows whose honeysuckle branches would ruffle our hair with white sweet fingers, into red and dusty-colored country towns, where quaint fresh flappers in wide straw lids would watch our triumphant passage with wondering eyes..."
Of course this is deliberately hyperbolic, an infusion of warm, rich language intended to coax his wife; but it is also representative of Fitzgerald's early style which, despite its excesses, always seduced the reader. Immediately afterwards Zelda punctures the fantasy, admitting she would be game '"if it wasn't for the car."' The car in question is a juddering old 1918 Marmon which Scott had bought second-hand at the time of his marriage. He nicknamed it an "Expenso" but the pair of them agreed on the more affectionate "Rolling Junk". They pack, take their chances and embark on the 1,200-mile journey south, from Westport to Montgomery.
Their "cruise" is indeed humorous. Fitzgerald was known at times for his light touch but his forays into actual comedy were hit-and-miss (the Pat Hobby stories of the late Thirties worked because the protagonist was modelled on its creator and Fitzgerald had grown more self-deprecating; but The Vegetable, his only play, and penned in the early Twenties when his cockiness could border on arrogance, was a flop). Rolling Junk succeeds, not so much because of when it was written but because everything that can go wrong on such a road-trip does go wrong. The Fitzgeralds are up against confusing guidebooks, misleading signposts, hostile weather, sneering Samaritans and condescending mechanics (even one lunatic highwayman), and experience one breakdown after another. They are also up against each other, being recently married and prone to petty squabbling and point-scoring. The fact that the car is a banger on its last legs, and that Fitzgerald is a rotten driver and Zelda a lousy map-reader, exacerbates all of these problems and heightens the comedy.