Ed Tarkington on Gatsby, Acceptance and the Real Nashville

To outsiders, mentioning Tennessee’s capital conjures images of crowded honkytonks on Broadway, overflowing with thrill-seeking bachelorettes or messy bros reliving their high school glory days. Country music, acclaimed Southern chefs, and debauchery abound.

But that’s not author Ed Tarkington’s Nashville, or the one occupied by his characters in The Fortunate Ones. Set initially in the 1980s, Tarkington’s book isn’t meant to mirror actual people, but it nevertheless offers an arresting portrait of his Music City, USA home. Teaching students from a similar echelon as his teenaged leads likely helped Tarkington craft such believable and multi-dimensional characters.

The Virginia native previously wrote Only Love Can Break Your Heart, which became a Southern Independent Booksellers Association bestseller (among other accolades). Tarkington has also written for the Nashville Scene, Lit Hub, Knoxville News-Sentinel, Memphis Commercial Appeal and regularly on Chapter16.org.

After reading The Fortunate Ones here’s a review, if you haven’t — I found myself eager to explore the eponymous fortunate ones, their home turf and the author from whose mind they sprang.

Every review of The Fortunate Ones seems quick to mention The Great Gatsby. What role did the classic novel play in inspiring this book? How do the two diverge?

The Gatsby comparisons have been a humbling and flattering surprise to me. Honestly, when I was writing The Fortunate Ones, I never thought about Gatsby — not once. I’ve read it cover to cover at least a dozen times, but I was not teaching it during the years I wrote the novel, and I never picked it up until I started teaching it again in 2019, when The Fortunate Ones was already complete, and I didn’t really consider it then either. The books that sat on my desk while I was writing The Fortunate Ones were Brideshead Revisited and All the King’s Men.

Once the connection to Gatsby was pointed out to me, however, the parallels seemed undeniable. The resemblance may be attributable to the depth of that novel’s influence on me and pretty much everyone who reads novels and thinks seriously about the idea of U.S.-American identity. It may also result from the universality of Gatsby‘s themes in respect to issues of wealth and class. It’s hard for me to pinpoint where the novels diverge because convergence with Gatsby was never my intention. I do, however, believe my narrator Charlie has a lot in common with both Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s narrator. Like Gatsby, Charlie is a poor outsider who comes to believe that being accepted by the wealthy will consecrate his existence. Like Nick, he is cynical and sometimes more than a tad disgusted by the vanities and excesses of the upper-crust world, but he is also aware of his own vulnerability to its seductions. One could argue that the main conflict in both novels is their narrators’ struggle to resolve a love-hate relationship with extravagant privilege and the people who take it for granted.

In what ways does the book reflect Nashville in particular, as opposed to any other American city with stark class and race divides? And could it just as easily be set in Nashville today, or is The Fortunate Ones more a reflection of a certain time in the city’s history?

When I started writing The Fortunate Ones, I had lived in Nashville just long enough to feel comfortable writing about it and not long enough to stop feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Nashville has never ceased to fascinate me, perhaps because it is changing so rapidly. I got really interested in setting a human drama across the course of the two decades leading up to the moment when the city really began to “blow up” and became the “It City.” I am personally more interested in how this population growth has made Nashville a kind of bellwether for the country, particularly given that it’s an urban area which leans politically blue surrounded by both affluent suburban and impoverished rural counties that are politically bright red.

That being said, while the details are specific to Nashville, the conflicts and themes occur in many contexts. As for whether a story like this could occur in Nashville or elsewhere in the South of today: in Virginia, we just saw the improbable political ascent of an extremely wealthy, charismatic businessman with zero experience in government who built a campaign around attacking the public schools and capitalizing on suburban white grievance and anxiety about identity politics. Sound familiar?

This isn’t the Nashville that’s typically portrayed in mass media. It feels like you’re pulling back the curtain on the city. It makes me think of the scene where Charlie Boykin asks his teacher if Vanessa would like his portrait of her, with the teacher responding that most people don’t like being seen so clearly. In that vein, what’s the response to your book been like in Nashville and at the prep school where you teach?

I was very intentional about describing the side of Nashville that seems to get overlooked in other media. Most people who don’t live here naturally assume that Nashville’s culture and economy revolve entirely around the country music industry. But long before Nashville became Music City, it was the “Athens of the South.” And the people who own and manage the major industries in this town do not wear cowboy hats. Their world is very similar to the one Fitzgerald and Waugh and Wolfe found irresistible as a subject of fiction, which is why it was so irresistible to me.

I teach Gatsby now, along with Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and a number of other stories and novels in which the conflicts and themes revolve around the pursuit of wealth and the folly and cruelty of people who have been corrupted by it. When teaching these novels, I’m frequently prompted to draw comparisons between characters and conflicts in the story and those that are occurring in our own world. Part of the point of setting The Fortunate Ones in Nashville and to have this big political drama grow out of a friendship that begins at a school like ours was to illustrate how these themes and conflicts are around us all the time. It’s the same story, over and over, everywhere.

The conflicts I’m writing about in terms of class and politics are pretty universal. Nevertheless, I certainly felt some anxiety about how the novel would be received here, especially in the community of the school where I teach, because there’s this perception these days that a novel which feels realistic or relevant to contemporary issues must therefore be “ripped from the headlines” or based on actual people, places and events, which is just not the case at all with this book. It is a work of fiction, not an exposé. Fortunately (no pun intended), the people in our community seem to acknowledge this.

If I were to go to Nashville and look for Charlie — as he is at the end of the book — where would I find him? And what about the grown-up Vanessa Haltom?

You would probably find Charlie up on the mountain outside of Nashville painting a waterfall, or else at a neighborhood bar in East Nashville like Dino’s or Drifter’s in Five Points or the Village Pub out in Inglewood. Vanessa would probably be back in D.C. trying to use her talents and her access to power to do some good in the world. No one in this story is without sin or fault, but in my imagination, Vanessa is the best of them.

Even after a decade away in Mexico, Charlie is immediately seduced by the intoxicating charm of Arch Creigh. Can you talk about why Charlie falls so easily into his old dynamic, and the role that class plays in their dynamic even so many years later?

Charlie starts out as a kid who comes from nothing, with nothing going for him but a pretty mom who sort of lucks into an opportunity to get him into the type of superb private school where no kid is allowed to be invisible or made to feel he has no worth. There, on day one, he meets this guy who has everything that matters to a teenaged boy — looks, brains, charm, athleticism, wealth, the girl. And this fellow befriends and mentors him and makes him feel for the first time in his life that he isn’t accidental and disposable.

Remember, Charlie has seen the word “bastard” stamped on his birth certificate. He’s a street kid. Then pretty much overnight, he’s spending his afternoons hanging around the pool in the back yard of a multimillion-dollar home, being invited to fly on a private jet to extravagant vacations, riding shotgun in the truck beside the Alpha of the pack. A moment of disillusionment drives him away, but all the while, what he’s wanted all along is for his idol to make him believe he’s not disposable. It’s not about the wealth or the lifestyle for Charlie. It’s about these two people — Arch and Vanessa — to whom he almost feels he owes his existence. Only after he loses them for the second time is Charlie fully able to realize that his value as a human being was not contingent on his connection to these gifted but very flawed people.

This book feels very intimate, driven by emotional intelligence, incisive observation of others and ultimately self-awareness. What did you learn about yourself in writing it? Is there something you hope readers learn about themselves or a message you hope they take from The Fortunate Ones?

To begin with, thank you for the kind words, and for all of these really thoughtful and challenging questions. It’s all very flattering, and I’m humbled by and grateful for the depth of your reading.

I wrote the majority of this novel during a period of profound personal struggle which had nothing to do the book itself. The process was deeply cathartic and therapeutic, but also very painful. When I flip through it and read certain passages, I can feel how I felt when I was writing those words. I think that’s what they call getting “triggered” these days.

Part of why I write is an effort to understand myself and make peace with who I am, where I come from, where I’m going, how I might be better — maybe a little less selfish and impatient, for instance, and a little more forgiving and generous. The way I do this sometimes is to wrestle my demons in a fictional context. I have learned both through study and experience that emotional honesty — the willingness to open up a vein, so to speak, and get some blood on the page — is essential for a story to evoke a meaningful or authentic response. I have read novels that are marvels of craft and language, but are completely bloodless and hence forgettable, and I’ve read flawed, messy novels that stir my soul and bring me to tears, because the author had the courage to be honest. Which would anyone rather read? Which would anyone rather write?

I don’t set out to teach lessons, to myself or anyone else. I put my virtues and my faults and my hopes and fears and frustrations into the lives of imaginary people in realistic but nevertheless imaginary circumstances, and try to imagine what they would do and what would happen to them. And I try to tell a good story, the kind I loved when I was a young reader, the kind that made me want to write novels myself — the kind I still love.

I believe a good novel — and by good, I mean honest, and brave — is as a mirror. Novels don’t teach us anything. They reveal to us what we already knew but could not yet articulate. Whatever is good or useful in The Fortunate Ones belonged to whoever finds it there before they picked up the book. Only the mistakes are mine.

The Fortunate Ones
By Ed Tarkington
Algonquin Books
Published January 5, 2021
Paperback October 5, 2021