Review: Jack Dann’s The Diamond Pit, by Charles Coleman Finlay

Review: Jack Dann’s The Diamond Pit, by Charles Coleman Finlay

When I read Jack Dann’s “The Diamond Pit” (F&SF, June 2001), I predicted in the Tangent Online newsgroup that it would certainly make either the final Hugo or Nebula ballot, or both. It did, in the process becoming Dann’s first Hugo nomination ever.

It’s a fun read. “The Diamond Pit” held my attention from the first blast of the anti-aircraft guns to that last game of mah-jongg amid the fragile Lionel trains. Shot out of the air, pilot Paul Orsatti, just back from the dogfights of World War I, is taken into the secret Rocky Mountain fortress of billionaire Randolph Estes Jefferson, a five-square mile area that shows up on no map, where slavery and a pre-Civil War aristocracy still rule.

The plot is straight out of classic SF/F adventure stories where a competent man stumbles on a lost, or hidden, civilization. Like other pulp heroes, Orsatti is thrust into an adventure he didn’t choose or expect, but has the chance to come out of it with a fortune and a beautiful woman that he loves.

The pulp era’s myth is that the hero can have that love and fortune cleanly just by being a brave, decent guy, and that he can escape danger by spurning the beautiful but spiteful woman. It’s John Carter when he meets Dejah Thoris, and conversely, when he meets Phaidar, daughter of Matai Shang. It’s Tarzan and Jane on the one hand, and Tarzan and La in The Jewels of Opar on the other. Although “The Diamond Pit” is set in North America and the Jazz Age, the pattern ought to be familiar to anyone who’s read H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, or any of the other writers who tackled the lost civilization adventure story. The particular appeal of “The Diamond Pit” comes from Dann’s mixture of the two story variations via his portrayal of Orsatti’s conscience.

Once captured, Orsatti falls in love with Jefferson’s daughter, Phoebe. But he discovers that Jefferson’s wealth has been acquired by murder and deceit, that the maintenance of it requires the subjugation of various groups of people, and that the woman, while beautiful, is no clinging innocent in need of rescue. Phoebe is smart, willful, and ruthless, every bit as competent in many ways as Orsatti. All this takes place against the backdrop of airplanes, kidnappings, ragtime piano, spectacular chateaus, Faulknerian histories, elaborate gardens, romantic interludes, catacombs, battles, infidelity, and cold-blooded murder.

In the end, Orsatti can marry Pheobe and become the richest man in the world — there’s only one condition:

“So who do you want to make things better for?” she demanded. “The servants? The prisoners in the Pit?”
“Both, for a start.”

By ‘servants,’ Phoebe means her father’s slaves. The ‘prisoners in the Pit’ are the other men like Orsatti who have stumbled on the castle accidentally. Orsatti identifies with the plight of both.

But this one condition is unacceptable to Phoebe. In the classic adventure story, the hero would spurn Phoebe’s love, crush Jefferson’s hidden empire, and escape. Dann does not give us — or Orsatti — such an easy out. Orsatti is a decent, brave guy, but there’s no way he can have either his love or fortune cleanly. So Orsatti ends the story still a prisoner, still desperately in love.

As a result, “The Diamond Pit” works as an action story, a moral meditation, and as a critique of pulp heroes. Tarzan may get his lordship, Jane, and command of the Waziri as a natural right; Orsatti has to compromise his conscience for similar rewards and he just can’t do it. It’s an American fable: we’re still in love with wealth and power, even when we find out how it’s created or maintained.

If that was all the story did, it would just be a good read. Dann, however, prefaces his tale with “Homage to F. Scott….” “The Diamond Pit” is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “A Diamond As Big As The Ritz,” a hidden empire novella that shows the influence of Haggard and similar writers back in the days before genre.

The key elements of Fitzgerald’s story — the Rocky Mountain billionaire, the beautiful daughter, the slaves — are repeated by Dann, although “The Diamond Pit” is not a continuation or even a simple variation. Instead, the Ritz’s Washingtons become the Pit’s Jeffersons, the daughter Kismine becomes Phoebe, the ‘Italian pilot’ Critchtichiello becomes Orsatti. By changing the names of the characters and other details, Dann emphasizes that his story is perfectly capable of standing on its own. A reader doesn’t have to be familiar with Fitzgerald’s novella for Dann’s to make sense.

However, “The Diamond Pit” gains another level of richness with the comparison, demonstrating Dann’s mastery of craft as it makes an interesting comparison between mainstream and genre fiction.

Though Dann calls it an ‘homage,’ “The Diamond Pit” is in many ways the antithesis of Fitzgerald’s tale. This begins with the switch in titles from Ritz to Pit: Fitzgerald creates an image of immeasurable, unimaginable wealth, while Dann evokes an unbreakable, inescapable prison, the negative to Fitzgerald’s positive.

Dann also recreates the eleven part structure of Fitzgerald’s story, but uses it to reverse essential features of Fitzgerald’s tale. In the first section of “Ritz,” John Unger leaves his middle-class life in the town of Hades for an expensive school in the east where he befriends Percy Washington, because, as he says, “I like very rich people.” In Dann’s tale, the working class pilot, Orsatti, comes out of the heavens, headed west, and loses a true friend, Joel, when their plane is shot down. While Fitzgerald emphasizes the ordinary aspects of his character and the setting, Dann reverses this with a focus on action.

The contrast is even more marked in the second section. Unger arrives as a guest at the Washington’s diamond chateau. The superficial abundance of riches is described in kid-in-candyshop detail, but the people are almost invisible: “John remembered that first night as a daze of many colors, or quick sensory impressions, of music soft as a voice in love, and of the beauty of things, lights and shadows, motions and faces.” The ‘beauty of things’ is given the most descriptive attention, while none of the people, aside from Percy ever have the chance to speak. In Dann’s story, the people are more important than the things. Orsatti identifies and describes his fellow prisoners, giving each one’s name and nickname; in just a few lines each character is revealed by his actions as a distinct individual with a richness of personality.

In part three of Fitzgerald’s story, Unger wakes up happy and satiated. A slave undresses and helps bathe him. He’s entertained by the sound of music before he ever eats breakfast. Orsatti, by contrast, is forced to create his own music on the piano. When he awakes from his drinking binge, he’s sick as a dog, and only the other prisoners are there to take care of him. His visit to George Bernard, a family member made prisoner (and suggestive of another level of depth in Dann’s writing), is ominous and foreboding.

Where Dann varies his story from Fitzgerald’s pattern, he does so to create a specific effect. In Part 4, Fitzgerald describes the history of the Washington family and how they came to keep their slaves and gain their riches. Dann moves this history to Part 6 in “The Diamond Pit,” where it sits at the exact center of the story, giving it its moral core. By contrast, the central scene in “Ritz” involves Washington’s confrontation with the pilots in the pit. Unger appears in the scene only as an observer and fades farther into the background as the conflict escalates, so that he has no part in it, and expresses no opinion of it at all. It becomes the perfect symbolism of Unger’s willingness to ignore how Washington’s wealth is maintained so long as he can share it.

It may be unfair to compare the craft of the two stories this way. “Ritz” is an example of Fitzgerald’s very early fiction. It shows his genius for symbolism and dense motif (Hades, Percy and the grail of wealth), explores themes that reappear throughout his work (the middle-class boy falling in love with an heiress), and takes imaginative risks. But there are weaknesses as well. The threat of murder hangs over Unger’s head as a device to create suspense, yet Unger (and the story) never seem to consider the moral implications. Fitzgerald creates the different voices of the men in the pit, and yet neither they nor the slaves come alive as people capable of independent action. Characters like Percy are introduced and then all but disappear from the story as soon as their function is served.

Dann’s story, on the other hand, is written by a master in the maturity of his craft. The prose is sharp with no word wasted, the most minor characters have dimension — compare the two treatments of the patriarch’s wife or the simple-mindedness of Fitzgerald’s negroes with the independent motivations of Dann’s, and the details are more specific and evocative: Fitzgerald describes ‘a good one-reel comedy’ but Dann shows ‘Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton slap each other across the screen.’ The whole story hangs together tightly.

More telling than the comparison between the craft of the two writers, however, is the way the stories illustrate the different tropes of mainstream and genre fiction. Unger, like another of Fitzgerald’s famous protagonists, Nick Carraway, is essentially a passive observer. He is filled with desire — for wealth, for love — but he depends entirely on others to deliver them to him. He goes along for the ride with Percy, and then with Kismine, both times at their initiative. When the slaves come to murder him, he is saved by the coincidental timing of the attack on the chateau instead of his own effort. When he escapes with Kismine, he relies on her to bring along the riches, and accepts it fatalistically when she grabs rhinestones by mistake.

Orsatti, by contrast, is thrown into circumstances out of his control but always takes action. When the pilot of his plane is killed, he takes the controls and tries to land the damaged craft. When he’s thrown into the pit he asks for a piano so he’ll have something to do. His state at the end of the story relies not on someone else’s action, but comes as a result of his own choice. The character who chooses, who acts, defines genre fiction.

But a bigger difference like in the way that Fitzgerald uses the fantasy element, this American Shangri-la in the Rockies, as a plot device. The castle must be utterly destroyed by the end of the story so that Unger can face ‘reality’ — the rest of his life in Hades with a rhinestone heiress, and only her sister to act as laundrywoman and servant. He could have met a pretty middle-class girl and come to the exact same place at the end of the story without the hidden castle. The fantasy element is there solely to exaggerate and emphasize Unger’s desire before snatching it away.

Dann, on the other hand, forces us to gaze on the fantastic element unflinchingly and consider it as a part of reality. “The Diamond Pit” reminds us that there are edifices of power built on theft and exploitation, ruled by ruthless people. If we want to be a part of it, then we must accept the consequences. So which writer is the more realistic?

In Dann’s story, the hero gets neither the girl nor the fortune. Some readers may find it unsatisfying that Orsatti does not triumph explicitly at the end of Dann’s tale. Without another scene, it seems too much like Phoebe is the winner, thus the hero of the story, despite the fact that she’s neither likeable nor sympathetic. In a real pulp adventure, the decent, brave guy is supposed to win. There is the suggestion, for those familiar with Fitzgerald’s story, that Orsatti triumphs in the end (during the attack on the castle, Kismine says “Yes — it’s that Italian who got away — “), but there are sufficient differences between the two stories that we cannot take this for granted.

Dann’s ending suggests a moral purpose, a contemplation on the sources of wealth, the nature of exploitation, and our willingness to look aside. Like much great literature, Dann’s homage to Fitzgerald achieves its effect by subtly disturbing us. We’re left, like Orsatti, in a very uncomfortable position, playing games among the toys and looking for a way out. The standard outcomes of the genre are subverted, and we’re forced to examine our own fantasies about wealth and decide how far we’d compromise our values to fulfill them.

“The Diamond Pit” works on all levels. Jack Dann has given us a tightly-written adventure story that mixes elements of the literary and spec fic genres to pose difficult moral questions without offering platitudinal solutions. While it didn’t win the Nebula, one wishes it better luck with the Hugo.


Charles Coleman Finlay’s fiction can be found in the April, August, and Oct/Nov 2002 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, with stories forthcoming in On Spec and Ideomancer Unbound. He’s also the Administrator for the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy.
An earlier version of this essay appeared as comments in the Tangent Online newsgroup.

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