"I was drunk for many years, and then I died."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Summary: A busy editor approaches a young magazine writer, Orrison Brown, with a request to take an old colleague to lunch. The colleague, Louis Trimble, is aloof and fragile. The two men stroll down a New York City sidewalk in search of a suitable restaurant. Brown learns that Trimble has missed most of the last decade, but it is unclear why. Brown speculates that Trimble may have been in an asylum, but later discovers that Tremble was a drunk. The two men dine together and Trimble departs, without ducking into the bar next door as Brown suspected. The story concludes with Brown anchoring himself by touching the side of a brick building.
Analysis: “The Lost Decade” isn’t one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best short stories – but it may be one of his most poignant. It was published in 1939 one year before a heart attack killed him (his heart damaged by years of chronic alcoholism). “The Lost Decade” is short both in length and scope – it takes place in a couple of hours in New York City. This is unusual for Fitzgerald who had the rare gift of creating a sense of epic grandness with his short stories.
“The Lost Decade” is so small, even delicate, that it reads like Fitzgerald wrote it for himself, not a broader audience. But he sends a message here: that despite the outward appearance of sickliness, shaken confidence, and a literary career looking like a wrecked automobile – that he was back. Unfortunately, the excesses of his youth caught up with his fragile heart and he died at the age of 44.
The story features two primary characters at opposite ends of the career spectrum. Orrison Brown is a young, Dartmouth graduate beginning a writing career as an entry level reporter at a weekly news magazine. He’s the rookie stuck with all the busy work – from editing copy to playing call boy. Then there is Louis Trimble (a name that not only signifies the shaky standing of his reputation, but the shaky hands of a hard-core drinker). Trimble was once a somebody. We’re told: “The name on his card, Louis Trimble, evoked some vague memory, but having nothing to start on, Orrison did not puzzle over it.” A forgotten somebody.
Trimble faces the indignity of his former colleague, Brown’s boss, pawning him off on the young editorial assistant. “Nobody knew this place like you did once,” the boss tells Trimble in front of Brown. The boss adds that Trimble’s been gone for a decade and feels “there’re lots of things he hasn’t seen.” He tells Brown to take him out to an expansive lunch. Talk about a kick in the teeth.
Trimble is aloof, distracted as they stroll along the sidewalk. Brown can sense the man’s alienation and wonders if he spent the last decade in jail or in an insane asylum. But even so, he can sense the remnants of greatness in Trimble. “Orrison attempted to connect the name with Admiral Byrd’s hideout at the South Pole or flyers lost in Brazilian jungles. He was, or had been , quite a fellow – that was obvious.”
They bypass the expensive restaurant, Trimble requesting a place with young people. A place where he can watch people, see the way they communicate. We now know that Trimble is an observer of human behavior, a chronicler. He notices the details and revels in them. We also find out that Trimble has been to this restaurant before – recently. When the waiter seems to recognize Trimble after they have eaten, Brown comments that ten years is a long time. Trimble slips that he ate in the place last May.
That’s when it comes to roost for the young reporter. He realizeds that Trimble hasn’t been away physically, only mentally, incapacitated by his private demons. When they talk about a building Trimble designed, but has never seen before, he admits: “But I was taken drunk that year – every-which-way drunk. So I never saw it before now.” Brown asks him if he wants to go inside and Trimble said he’s been inside it many times, but “I’ve never seen it.” Another reference to the alcoholic state he’s been trapped in for a decade.
Brown and Trimble shake hands and depart. And here’s where we get the glimmer of hope – Fitzgerald telling himself and us – that he’s going to make it. Brown expects Trimble to dart into the nearest bar for a drink. “But there was nothing about him that suggested or ever had suggested drink. `Jesus,’ he said to himself. `Drunk for ten years.’”
It’s unfortunate for us all that Trmble, the fictional Fitzgerald, wasn’t the real one.
Read our literary criticism of Kurt Vonnegut's "Welcome to the Monkey House"
Labels: F. Scott Fitzgerald, literary criticism, literature