John Dos Passos, his ‘cockroach,’ and other recollections
At the age of 70, John Dos Passos published his memoirs, The Best Times (1966). They were no complete record of his life history, but recounted selections from his youth, his “best times.”
John Dos Passos starts his memoirs remembering his father, whom he designates as “the Commodore.” His father rose from poverty to become a man of standing and riches. It was his father who financed Dos Passos’ studies at Harvard. Dos Passos then enlisted as an ambulance driver, serving during WWI, describing in his memoirs how he had to carry off buckets filled with amputated arms and legs and other body limbs that grenades had torn apart. Later Dos Passos crossed the desert from Baghdad to Damascus (with a fully grown beard), and became sick with the Greenwich Village poets and the expatriate movement, whose ideas towards life and American literature made him “throw up.”
His friendships with E. E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are warmly described.
Always in a conversational and self-ironic tone, John Dos Passos remembers funny anecdotes, such as the episode when his car was stolen in Spain. The writer was trying to sell his car and then make his way to Gibraltar and out of the country. He called the car his “cochecito” or his “cockroach.” He put an advertisement in the papers and a young lieutenant showed up who wanted a test drive before buying. Dos Passos agreed, and off the lieutenant went driving the Fiat down the road. “An hour passed. A day. No lieutenant.” No car. The man didn’t return. Dos Passos called the police. One day later, the officers found the car. Dos Passos was so gratified that he even drank a toast of sherry. In the meantime, he had found a buyer and wanted to sell the car straightaway so that he could set off to Gibraltar as planned. Yet, the unexpected happened:
“We had found another buyer, at half price,” Dos Passos recalls, “We wanted the car. The police were extraordinarily polite. The cochecito was quite safe. They took me to see it in a near courtyard. It was swathed in chickenwire so that nobody could touch it. Couldn’t I take the car now? I had a buyer for it. I was leaving for Gibraltar next day. The chief inspector pronounced himself afflicted by this news but the car would have to remain there as evidence. […] No hay remédio. Es la ley. We took the night train to Gibraltar. The last we saw of the cockroach it was still encased in chicken wire in the courtyard of Gobernacíon…”
The Best Times is a fascinating and absorbing piece of biographical writing that reveals the early life of the man who in his novels and chronicles wrote about America’s past. Reading The Best Times is reading the memoirs of “the greatest writer of our time” (to use Jean Paul Sartre’s much-cited appraisal), one of the brightest and most influential of the now truly “lost” generation.