April 23: “The Great Gatsby Party” by Kelly Fordon

Hello, Story366! Not like you can tell this, but today I am not actually here, online. I have written this post ahead of time, as I’m out in the woods with a bunch of Cub Scouts, camping with my son and his cronies. I am, right now, making rope, taking hikes, starting fires, orienteering in general, and singing songs. This is my son’s fourth year in Scouts, making this our fourth Pack campout.

A little story here before we get started with Kelly Fordon: Three years ago, first pack campout, I don’t know much about Scout camping, can’t contribute much. Someone knew that I write, though, and after some of the dads played songs on their acoustic guitars, other told stories, eyes fell on me to add a tale. Earlier that day, on a hike, we’d run across some trees that were fell by actual beavers, chewed to hourglass cuts, just like in cartoons. So, my story was a ghost story—a lot of them were—about an old monster, living in those very woods, named Beaverman. I talked about how Beaverman had eaten a lot of people—kids, mostly—and was put in an insane asylum, but had gotten out. I noted how it was good there wasn’t any wood (we were in the woods) or kids around (there were thirty) to attract him, and then got up, said goodnight, and went to bed. Later on, the kids were running around in the field by our tents with flashlights and some were yelling, “Beaverman’s after me!” or “Beaverman’s going toget you in your tent tonight!” I had done my job. The next day we went home and I forgot about Beaverman.

Only the next year, we were sitting at that very campsite, around the fire, singing songs and telling ghost stories, and some kid said something like, “Hey, have any of you ever heard of Beaverman?” And then he told a story about Beaverman. Then other kids told stories about Beaverman. And some kids were crying because they thought Beaverman was real. They remembered! They were still freaked out! And they stole my story!

Today is the last spring campout we’ll take with this Pack, as this time next year, my son will either be in Boy Scouts or not in Scouting at all. Today, while you’re reading this and I’m nowhere near the Internet or Story366, I’ll be giving Beaverman his proper send off. I thought about trying to find a giant beaver costume—I’m sure some furry online outlet has a ton of 3Xs in stock—and maybe even eating a kid or two, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m writing this the night before and I’m not even sure if I’ll be hungry for Cub Scout at this time tomorrow.

Anyway, for today’s post, I read from Kelly Fordon’s book Garden for the Blind, out from Wayne State University Press and the Made in Michigan Writers Series, which seems to be a collective of sorts, many prominent Michigan writers like Laura Kasischke and Stuart Dybek serving on the board of advisors, a project dedicated to publishing Michigan writers. Cool. Kelly took some online workshop classes from me a while back, so when I saw that she had a book out, I was absolutely thrilled, as Kelly is extremely awesome—as a writer, a workshopper, and a person. I’m so happy to be delving into her fantastic debut collection.

Garden for the Blind is a book of connected stories, told sequentially over the course of several decades, starting with today’s featured story, “The Great Gatsby Party.” The subheading to this story is “1974,” and this piece chronicles an event that sets forth all the rest of the stories in the book, either directly or indirectly. The protagonist of “The Great Gatsby Party,” Alice, is the main character in a lot of the stories in the book (according to the back cover), but not the second piece, “Use Everything in Your Arsenal”—that’s about a kid named Johnny who meets up with a violent n’er-do-well named Mikey Gallagher. The third story, “Lucky,” is another Alice Story, told eleven years after “The Great Gatsby Party.” In that story, Mikey Gallagher shows up as Alice’s pot dealer. The fourth story, “The Guest Room,” features a different protagonist, and that’s as far as I got for Story366.

So what happens in “The Great Gatsby Party” to make a collection of stories happen?

“The Great Gatsby Party” is about a Great Gatsby party, where a bunch of rich people get together, wear 1920s clothing and listen to 1920s music and drink 1920s booze, and act like the people do in the parties in The Great Gatsby. As Fordon’s book takes place outside Detroit, I can’t help think that this could be the same party and group of people that Michael Moore gets to say awful things from Roger and Me. In any case, Alice is a five-year-old girl living in the house where the party is being held, her parents the illustrious hosts. Alice has an older sister, Queenie, who is being mean to her in the place of meaner and older brother, Ray, who is at boarding school. The kids are basically locked up in house’s attic (this comes up again, two stories later, in “Lucky”), so they don’t get in the way, so the adults can have fun. Also, Gerard and Betty Ford, the Vice and Mrs. Vice President, are stopping by (Ford was from Michigan, but not related to the automaker). The Fords are the featured guests, and there’s tons of Secret Service around, making sure everything goes well.

But it doesn’t. This is 1974 and remember what happened in 1974? Nixon resigned over Watergate in August and Ford became President. We don’t get month here, but from the context of the story, I’m taking it it’s right before Nixon got outta Dodge. How does this affect the story? Along with all the rich auto industry execs, a bunch of protestors show up to the party, protestors who will not allow Ford and his wife to have a good time, protestors who force the Secret Service’s hand: The Fords have to leave. That’s about when tragedy strikes, and without revealing anything further, it certainly is the kind of thing that can have a lasting effect on people’s lives for decades, or short stories that take place over decades.

Aside from the spectacle of the scene, which is handled deftly by Fordon, moving through the crowds like Brian DePalma, there’s a really innocent POV on display throughout. The wonder of the whole affair is really magnified, coming from Alice’s young eyes, as nothing about this party seems real. Everyone’s in costume, everyone’s drunk, and there’s these men with guns running about, whom Alice likens to tarsiers, giant teddy bears in one of her children’s books (but are, in the real world, primates that live in the Philippines).  Alice and Queenie are always slipping through adults’ legs, hiding under vast tablecloths, and sneaking into places they aren’t allowed. The innocence that Fordon portrays is vital to the story, vital for a couple of reasons. One, since the tragedy sets everything in motion, the tragedy will have a larger effect if it is preceded by innocence. Two, the shock value of this incident is magnified by the fact that up until that point, everything seems like a children’s book, like something out of Lewis Carroll instead of affluent 1970s Detroit. Fordon makes a perfect choice and it pays off for her.

I’m really excited to see where the stories in Garden for the Blind go after the first four, how Alice grows up, how said tragedy continues to affect her and her family. I already know she’s a pothead and even slips into some light bagman work by the time she’s sixteen, so not a good path. Kelly Fordon is a talented writer and she’s written a great, intriguing, and beautiful book. Check it out.

Kelly Fordon

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One thought on “April 23: “The Great Gatsby Party” by Kelly Fordon

  1. Pingback: July 7: “Bugout” by Jon Trobaugh – Story366

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