Nick by Michael Farris Smith

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Nick Carraway – the eponymous protagonist of Nick – is also the narrator of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  The latter novel is said by some to be a contender for ‘the great American novel’ and by others more simply as a literary masterwork.  Of his third reading of The Great Gatsby, Michael Farris Smith said ‘it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life’ [Foreword, p12] which ultimately led him to writing this prequel.  As Farris Smith says, there is almost nothing about Nick himself in The Great Gatsby and so he decided to write Nick’s story.

In an opening sentence reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, the author places Nick in Paris on leave from fighting at the front during World War I – A heavy morning fog draped across Paris and there was the corner café [19].  Nick was sitting in the café with Ella – a young Frenchwoman whom he had first seen on the streets of Paris trying unsuccessfully to sell picture frames.  Ella lived in an abandoned theatre among the discarded costumes and it was there that Nick spent his leave.

In perhaps the most successful part of the novel, the author sets out the trajectory of the relationship between Nick and Ella interposed with Nick’s experiences at the front which are as confronting as they are horrifying – Some ran away and some played dead and others had long been void of humanity and ripped and shredded like barbarians that needed blood to survive [24].  As a counter-point to the horror of war, there is the love affair as Ella said to Nick, I give my days to you and you give your days to me [47].

But behind Nick, his relationship with Ella and his experiences on the killing fields of France is his backstory.  The author brings to life Nick’s childhood and teenage years setting out in beautifully evocative sentences how life unfolds for a young boy in a Minnesotan town with well-to-do parents.  The reader can readily visualise the slow and steady routine of a well-ordered life – there was work and school and church [54]; but for Nick’s mother, there was also a blackness that … stayed with them for weeks [54] as she faced severe depression.  Nick saw his future as unfolding before him as his father’s had before him – and that brought nothing but ‘fear’.  As Nick almost said to his father I have to get out of here or I am going to die [112].  After graduating from college in New Haven, he volunteered as soon as the United States entered the war – it was the chance to escape and he took it [112].

The narratives of Nick’s childhood and teenage years and his experiences in France unfold through alternating chapters – all of which are skilfully written and achieve the author’s aim of writing Nick’s story.

However, after Nick again has leave in Paris but is unable to locate Ella before the fighting is done, he returns to the States.  But instead of travelling to his home, he goes to New Orleans where once Ella visited with her father.

It is at this point that the focus moves from Nick to three new characters: Collette, a brothel keeper; Judah a physically and emotionally shattered ex-soldier; and Kade a violent and amoral monster.  Nick appears only as an observer playing a small part in the destructive dynamic which exists between Collette, Judah and Kade.  While in its own way, the story is of some interest but the tone of the novel changes.  A miasma of violence, amorality and corruption seeps through these pages as in the following passage:

[A] man with his pants around his knees and his hair and shirt on fire leapt out of the window and a naked girl came out after him with her burning skin and they landed on the sidewalk and twisted and wrenched and screamed [150].

It is not until the final pages when Nick leaves New Orleans that the novel seems to regain its purpose and the focus moves back to Nick.  When he walks out of his rented room it was quiet and clean and it was as if no one had been there at all [303] – perhaps suggesting that this part of Nick’s life was over and there would be no return.

In The Great Gatsby, one night after Nick has moved to West Egg and into his small rented cottage, he walks out to look across the sound to East Egg.  He sees that he was not alone—fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars [The Great Gatsby p24].

In Nick, presaging that moment which ultimately brings him to meet Jay Gatsby, he watches the sunrise and sees a figure at the end of the pier.  A silhouette waiting for dawn.  But even in silhouette Nick thought that the figure seemed to hold some magical stature ’[316-7].

If the aim of the author was to tell Nick’s story then, largely, he has successfully achieved that.  The first and last parts of the novel provide a real sense of Nick as a person independent of Jay Gatsby.  It is only the centre part focussing on Collette, Judah and Kade which sit somewhat awkwardly with the other parts and add little to our understanding of Nick.

For readers who admire The Great Gatsby and who are curious about its narrator, then Nick will go some way to provide answers.

Michael Farris Smith has been awarded the Mississippi Author Award for Fiction, Transatlantic Review Award, and Bricks Street Press Story Award.  He has been a finalist for the Southern Book Prize, the Gold Dagger Award in the UK and the Grand Prix des Lectrices in France.

Nick

[2021]

by Michael Farris Smith

No Exit Press

ISBN  978 08573 0454 4

$29.99; 320pp

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