Nick: An Ambitious if Uneven Backstory for Gatsby’s Narrator - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Nick: An Ambitious if Uneven Backstory for Gatsby’s Narrator
Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in 2013 film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” (YouTube screenshot)

Nick: A Novel
Michael Farris Smith
(Little, Brown and Company, 304 pages, $27)

Michael Farris Smith’s much-anticipated prequel to F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s celebrated The Great Gatsby (1925) is a must-read for Fitzgerald fans. Strategically published on January 5, 2021, four days after Fitzgerald’s most famous novel entered the public domain as a result of its copyright expiration, Farris Smith’s reimagined backstory was initially met with mixed reviews. While most literary critics admired the author’s intentions and acknowledged that his finished product tastefully played homage to Fitzgerald’s literary style, they weren’t completely sold on Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway’s pre–West Egg existence. As Ron Charles wrote in the Washington Post, “To its own detriment, ‘Nick’ remains as polite and well-behaved as Nick Carraway himself. We want a disruptive revelation; instead, we get a plausible alibi.” Other critics accepted the novel as a stand-alone work. As Ben Fountain of the New York Times observed, “Farris’s B.G. Nick seems too hard-used by the war to square neatly with the ironic, bantering Nick who will someday, between the covers of that other book, show up for dinner at the Buchanans. But such is the power of ‘Nick’ that I found myself hardly caring whether one Nick squares with the other.”

As a Fitzgerald fan who has reread The Great Gatsby at least 20 times, including twice in the last year, I find myself somewhere in between celebrating Nick as a stand-alone novel and denigrating it for its failure to provide honest texture to the Nick Carraway character. I approached my reading of Nick as a sequenced experiment: my first read of the novel was immediately followed by yet another reread of The Great Gatsby. I believed that in order to understand Farris Smith’s work as a prequel, I needed to read the two books in rapid sequential order. I thought that if I skipped rereading The Great Gatsby and relied upon my familiarity with the work, I might miss an important detail or character nuance planted in the prequel which blossomed in the sequel.

This exercise enabled me to revisit The Great Gatsby with fresh eyes as I was now equipped with new, albeit unconfirmed, information about its narrator. Since I had not previously read any of Farris Smith’s other works, I was able to enter Nick’s “before Gatsby” world without any preconceived notions or expectations. The novel opens during World War I. Nick is serving in France a few years after his graduation from Yale. Farris Smith depicts Nick as deeply impacted by the ravages of war: his Nick is a man whose hand quivers uncontrollably during the day, who finds no respite at night as his sleep is invaded by the atrocities of the previous day. Over the course of the novel, we travel with Nick back and forth from the war front to Paris, where he has a short-lived, tragic romance with a French woman named Ella, who sells picture frames. After Nick’s tour of duty is over, he returns to the States. But, instead of traveling directly to his Minnesota home, he makes an impulsive detour to New Orleans, where he briefly gets involved in the lives of Judah, an opium-addicted war veteran, and his estranged wife, Colette, who owns a brothel. Nick then returns to the Midwest to see his family before taking residence in West Egg, Long Island. The novel concludes before Nick officially makes Jay Gatsby’s acquaintance.

Nick is an engaging story, and Farris Smith’s lyrically vivid language and concise writing fuels its vitality. Like many others have already noted, while not directly imitating Fitzgerald, Farris Smith captures his voice and creates a bridge to The Great Gatsby in passages such as this one:

The shifting light of night to day and the mist from the water played with his eyes but he thought he saw a figure at the end of the pier. Nick watched for movement but it remained still. A silhouette waiting for dawn. But even in silhouette Nick thought that the figure seemed to hold some magical stature, as if a fairytale were being whispered into his ear and his mind creating the vision for it.

Farris Smith’s novel also includes echoes of Hemingway, particularly in the war-front segments. The voices of other writers are also present. For instance, a scene depicting a drunken couple in which the man abandons his female companion on a train platform is reminiscent of John O’Hara.

While Nick is an engrossing read and has also motivated me to get acquainted with Farris Smith’s other novels, it is not a believable past life for Gatsby’s narrator. Granted, there are compelling moments in the war front and in the Paris sections in  which you can see the roots of the Nick of Gatsby‘s West Egg. But the New Orleans section provides little illumination about his character. While Judah and Colette’s relationship is eerily like that of Gatsby’s George and Myrtle Wilson, Nick’s relationship with this doomed couple seems forced. Given that there is no logical reason for Nick to become involved in their personal violent tragedy, I found myself wanting him to extricate himself before being further dragged into their circumstances — which is what eventually happened. The New Orleans section also depicts a dark world devoid of hope, which is inconsistent with Fitzgerald’s lens. Fitzgerald’s works, with the notable exception of his fatalistic second novel The Beautiful and Damned (1922), are ultimately optimistic, with the surviving characters successfully moving beyond tragic circumstances.

Nick was written in the third person. But it might have been more credible as a prequel if Farris Smith had elected to write it in the first person, as Gatsby was written. During an interview with NB magazine, Farris Smith described his decision to use third-person narration.

The first thought I had after having the idea was this will be in third person, because there was no way in hell I was going to try to mimic Fitzgerald’s style, not for a page, much less an entire novel. I wouldn’t want to do that with anyone. I wanted to be free to tell this story, but also be Michael Farris Smith, and third person allowed that. I did consider how Nick sounded when creating his dialogue, but other than that, I never considered doing it in first person.

Although I can appreciate Farris Smith’s creative choices, I wonder if this talented writer could have found a way to deliver Nick Carraway’s consistently reliable narrator’s voice without sacrificing his own personal style. As Nick comments in The Great Gatsby, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” By limiting Nick’s direct voice, Farris Smith has downplayed the importance of his steadfast authenticity of action and expression as juxtaposed with the careless poor people in New Orleans and their rich counterparts in Long Island.

Despite its unevenness, Nick is a captivating, beautifully written homage to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Farris Smith is to be commended for creating a provocative, thoughtful work that not only succeeds as a separate literary offering but also celebrates and encourages new generations to read Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

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