The Great Gatsby entered the public domain on January 1. Michael Farris Smith’s new novel, Nick, arrived four days later to exploit the expiration of Fitzgerald’s copyright to tell the story of Nick Carraway before he moved to West Egg. I say “exploit” because it’s hard to think of Nick as anything other than an opportunistic act of literary vandalism. Smith doesn’t deepen or complicate our understanding of Fitzgerald’s novel or its narrator. Instead, he lifts the urbane future bond trader we know from Gatsby and plops him into a crude historical thriller.
The story begins in France during the First World War, where Nick is engaged in trench warfare. The rations are meager, the cigarettes half smoked, and many of his comrades have been wounded. War, as we’ve heard, is hell. But not Paris, where Nick meets and makes love to a beautiful girl named Ella in her attic squat. On his next leave, he finds Ella unconscious, having chased pills with whiskey in her lonesome desperation. He nurses her back to health, and then returns to the front, now with his own inexplicable death wish. On a probable suicide mission, he’s nearly killed by German underground explosives, but miraculously survives and, after playing dead in a mass grave for two days, escapes. When the war ends, he goes back to Paris to look for Ella, but she is nowhere to be found.
The first third of Smith’s novel betrays the Nick Carraway we know in a few ways. Other than some chitchat with Gatsby about which divisions they served in, Fitzgerald’s Nick says of his service that he “participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War.” There are no signs that he was shell-shocked. Nor does Fitzgerald’s Nick seem like the type to obsess over a pretty girl he can barely communicate with. Of the golf champion Jordan Baker, he says, “I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.” Ironic understatement and emotional subtlety are foreign to Smith’s novel, in which every character is either madly in love, homicidally jealous, drunk and psychopathic, or suicidally depressed.
Whereas Fitzgerald’s Nick was shipped east to boarding school at a young age, Smith’s Nick recalls having to beg a reluctant father to send him to Yale, a fundamental misunderstanding of the social milieu portrayed by the author to whom Smith is putatively paying tribute. As for Yale, Nick remembers attending a football game with a blonde coed, writing a bit for the newspaper, and little else. Smith’s strategic evasion of this presumably formative area can be chalked up to the fact that there was insufficient artillery fire or shotgun showdowns in New Haven to sustain the sort of gory set piece he favors.
Ironic understatement and emotional subtlety are foreign to Smith’s novel, in which every character is either madly in love, homicidally jealous, drunk and psychopathic, or suicidally depressed.
On his way home from Europe, Nick remembers Ella’s having mentioned a childhood trip to New Orleans, and so he diverts from Chicago to look for her in the Big Easy. Surprise, surprise: Ella is not there. He takes to drinking coffee at a brothel’s bar, refusing both the liquor and women on offer, hoping that one day Ella might walk in and find him there. She doesn’t. Instead, the brothel is burned down.
On the street after the fire, Nick meets a fellow veteran named Judah, a saloon owner who smokes opium as an analgesic for his war wounds. His estranged wife, Colette, is the brothel’s madam. She believes that Judah is behind the fire—rightly, as it turns out. The arsonist hired by Judah returns to town to extort money from him, and several violent and preposterous scenes are staged to keep things—well, “interesting” isn’t the right word. Nick’s motives for keeping Judah from killing himself and bringing about a reconciliation between Judah and Colette remain hazy. Why not simply quit the scene and head back north?
Because writing corny thrillers set in Paris or the American South is what Smith does: this is his sixth such novel. He receives awards, polite reviews praising him for carrying on the tradition of the Southern gothic, and even the occasional comparison to Cormac McCarthy. Such comparisons aren’t entirely misplaced. Nick begins as a bad imitation of Hemingway and shifts as the action moves southerly into cod-Cormac before devolving into the fragmented shorthand of the extended film treatment (“Untitled Nick Carraway Backstory”).
But before Netflix greenlights the adaptation, let’s get a few things straight. Cormac McCarthy is the last American genius you’d pick to write Nick Carraway, much less a McCarthy imitator who replaces his biblical and Shakespearean themes with stale pop psychology slathered in blood and guts. Publishing this novel with a Fitzgerald-focused publicity campaign and a copy of the classic Gatsby book cover is a cynical money grab.
Writers of commercial and genre fiction often say they don’t get enough respect in the literary press. But for every John le Carré, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Elmore Leonard, there are hundreds of others whose works may entertain but crumble under any scrutiny. Sorry to spoil the party, but somebody has to say it. Otherwise, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into bullshit.
Christian Lorentzen is a Brooklyn-based writer