There’s a scene in the highly underrated film about the rise and fall of Factory Records, 24 Hour Party People, where our hero Tony Wilson (played by the laconic Steve Coogan) quotes Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.” At this point in the film, Tony’s wife has left him, and Ian Curtis (the iconic frontman of Joy Division) has killed himself. With the professional and personal life in shambles, Tony Wilson waxes philosophic for just a moment before we are reminded that Tony is from Manchester. As a result, Fitzgerald’s quote does not apply, and from the ashes of Joy Division rises New Order and Factory Records, Act II.
Last week I saw the latest film adaptation of Fitzgerald’s opus The Great Gatsby, and as the lights dimmed in the theatre, I thought about that quote once again. There is a true American romanticism in the shooting star, the Icarus character, the bright and awe-inspiring flash of wild exhilaration and promise blazing across the sky of our collective consciousness. The only thing which dazzles us more than the rise is the precipitous fall from grace. The only thing we love more than an underdog is a fallen hero. At one point in our culture, the order was reversed, but nowadays, under the critical eye of camera lenses and twenty four hour news cycles, how someone falls and fails us is the common currency for the bread and circus of celebrity. It’s a paranoid balance of voyeurism and jealousy–we want the gory, scandalous details. We have to walk the crime scene, trample evidence in a stampeding desire of been there/done that. We need to be snarky and witty, or at least find someone to provide us with a re-tweetable punchline.
I think we act this way towards the cult of personality since it runs in exact opposition with how live our day to day lives. Most of us work hard enough just to keep our heads above water. We want and need second chances. We know what it’s like to be down on our luck. We have had our backs to the wall. Those celebrities we move from hero to pariah are often done at a distance fickle enough for us to justify as unreal–these are not the folks you see in line at Target with you, trying to figure out how to stretch your paycheck for another week.
The truth of the matter is most of my friends are too damn busy to even really bother with all this TMZ reality. Our world is as insular as any other–living lives, tending the tiny fires of our passions. We know damn well no one is offering us anything on a silver platter. We break our backs and sacrifice tiny parts of ourselves in order to squeeze out the sparks of inspiration which keeps us alive at such a free and fundamental level. We find life in these shadows and spaces–in margins of wide rule days. We write, perform, love, create, and live. More often than not, these glimpses of something larger sustain us, keeping the promise of life lived well alive in each and every one of us. We have made choices which have, for the most part, kept the traditional and domestic at arms’ length, allowing us to create our own mule variations of such terms. It’s not like we are openly looking for a way to avoid the errant pitfalls and trappings of “square life;” that may have been how we saw it ten, fifteen years ago. No, we just want to live our lives and figure out our way through the day to day on our own terms. How different is that from anyone with a lust for life who has come before us or will come after?
In the last year, I’ve had several opportunities to move into the daily grind, but not on my terms. There have been points throughout this year where I thought that I’ve made a mistake. The lean days of gas money versus food money; the days where I sent out a dozen resumes and got zero response in return; reading Facebook status updates of friends who seem to live so effortlessly as I would struggle with putting two days which made sense together; the rejection letters from would be employers; the blow off from would be lovers; the laundry list of days with nothing to offer but time and ennui. Somehow, out the other end of this year long tunnel, there is light enough to sustain the days which remain inside of me bright and full of fire. I can see pinholes of illumination waiting behind the drawn curtain.
As the credits rolled on Luhrmann’s interpretation of Gatsby, I thought about how it’s up to us to define the changes of our lives. With a clear eye and open heart, we can be ready to draw opportunity to us and be unwavering in accepting this chance as hope. It is only in our capacity to have faith in our inertia and to live on our own terms which separates the life we want from the life we make. In the open heart forge of fortunate hours, we patiently ply our craft, ready to choose risk and make our luck out of iron and willpower. It is not easy, and occasionally it doesn’t even feel practical. But what makes us who we are is our ability to be steadfast and stubborn enough to not compromise the fundamental desire of our being.
In a few weeks, my second act begins. I will be moving from Pennsylvania to Springfield, IL to become the new Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Show. I am scrambling to collect myself, gathering the life packed and boxed in my cousin’s basement and beyond. There’s so much to do–almost too much–but yet not enough. I am ready to draw the curtain back and emerge on the other side, slightly wiser and decidedly more confident in the choices I’ve made and the path I’ve kept.
Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University.