The bard of the Jazz Age shouldn't be buried here. On a hillside in Hollywood perhaps, where he spent his last, unhappy years, or in glamorous downtown Manhattan – or even in Père Lachaise in Paris, the last resting place of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, among other foreigners who sought inspiration or refuge in the City of Light. But not in the commercial suburbs of Washington DC, among office blocks and strip malls, in a cemetery wedged between a six-lane highway and a railway line.
That, though, is where you find the grave of F Scott Fitzgerald, at St Mary's Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland, an Exxon station visible from the spot where he lies. In the pre-car age Rockville must have been a small village in the countryside; the church itself dates from 1817, when America was barely 40 years old. Today, however, it is Anywhere, USA.
Once you're actually in the small cemetery, the tombstone of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda – almost as much an emblem of the age as her husband – is easy to pick out. A bouquet of fresh flowers might be expected. Less so, however, other votive offerings left by admirers – an unopened miniature bottle of Seagram's whiskey and small piles of coins, symbols of the two commodities of which Fitzgerald was in constant need before he died in 1940: money and drink.
Most surprising of all, you will probably have the place to yourself. America is currently going through a new bout of adoration for one of its most lauded writers. This weekend, a new blockbuster version of his finest work, The Great Gatsby, opened in the US with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, and the book is again at the top of the paperback bestsellers, almost 90 years after it was first published.
On top of that not one, but three novels have just appeared, reimagining the tumultuous Fitzgerald marriage. But no hint of anything special at St Mary's. When I dropped by last week, as the cars and trains passed by, I was the only visitor. Solitude, however, merely increases the urge to re-read Gatsby.
Few novels have been loaded with such metaphysical freight. The ordinary origins, lavish life and sorry end of Jay Gatsby are held up as metaphor for the national gift for self-reinvention, and the ultimate hollowness of the American Dream, as proof that there is more to life than money, that boom leads to bust as surely as the Jazz Age was followed by the Great Depression. And so on, and so on.
But Fitzgerald surely had little of that in mind when he dreamed up Gatsby. He wanted to tell a story, and knew he was on a roll – "I feel an enormous power in me, more than I ever have," he wrote to his editor in 1924. The result was a novel that simply cannot be improved upon, fluid and lyrical, impossibly easy to read, impossible to forget.
This year 750,000 copies or more of the book will be sold in the US. It helps, of course, that Gatsby is required reading for every high school and college student in the land. But so too does the fact that it's short.
Right now I'm two-thirds of the way through Parade's End, Ford Madox Ford's magisterial novel of the First World War, written at about the same time as Gatsby, and similarly considered one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century. But at 906 pages, it's a slog. Gatsby runs to just 180 pages. You can polish it off at a single sitting in a couple of hours, no longer than the movie, savouring every sentence.
Indeed Gatsby buffs insist the most satisfying acted version is the stage show Gatz, running for six-plus hours, in which a man in an office reads the entire book aloud while waiting for a computer to be repaired, as he and his co-workers gradually metamorphose into the characters in the book.
All of which drives home the lesson that you mess with Gatsby, even with its cover, at your peril. The latest paperback edition is, reasonably enough, a movie tie-in featuring DiCaprio in an art deco frame. Purists were outraged, insisting that the only permissible cover is the original from 1925, of a woman's face outlined in spectral blue, above a gleaming Manhattan skyline. With the notable exception of The New York Times, the reviews of Baz Luhrmann's rendering of the tale have been pretty withering. History, however, may be kinder – as it has been to Fitzgerald himself.
When he died in 1940, the writer considered himself a failure. He was an alcoholic, broke, and reduced to writing mostly unused Hollywood screenplays. His marriage had collapsed and Zelda was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Fitzgerald's family were from Rockville, and though he had never lived there himself, the plan was for his body to be buried at St Mary's in the family plot. But the church refused, on the grounds that he wasn't a practising Catholic. Moreover, noted the parish priest, "we find his books objectionable".
Instead, Fitzgerald was interred in nearby Rockville Cemetery. Few attended the funeral, and the Protestant minister who led the service didn't know who he was. The occasion was an eerie re-enactment of Gatsby's funeral, attended by not a single one of the hundreds of "friends" who went to the sumptuous parties at his Long Island mansion. Eight years later Fitzgerald was joined in death by Zelda. Only in 1975 were their remains moved to St Mary's.
Go there now and the ghosts of Gatsby return. You seek to imagine how Rockville once was, before the trains, cars and office blocks – just as, in the final wondrous page of The Great Gatsby, the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway, imagines a pristine Long Island before the Twenties roared, before New York big money and Gatsby arrived. The sentiment is engraved on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's tombstone, the concluding and maybe most famous sentence of his most famous book. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."