Book review: Nick, by Michael Farris Smith

Michael Farris Smith’s attempt to tell the story of Nick, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is surprisingly successful – in fact, readers might be well advised to try and forget about the Fitzgerald connection altogether, writes Allan Massie

Michael Farris Smith PIC: Philippe Matsas

The narrator of a novel may be an actor or he may be an observer. One thinks of Isherwood’s “I am a camera,” but Scott Fitzgerald was there before him. Nick Carroway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is of very little interest himself. “Colourless and boring” I called him in a review many years ago. We learn the bare details of his life to date: growing up in the Middle West where his father owned a hardware store, brief war service, return home and now a bond dealer on Wall Street spending the summer at West Egg on Long Island. But he’s there as a point of view: to give us the mysterious Gatsby, the rich and careless Buchanans and Jordan Baker.

Now Michael Farris Smith, already widely praised for novels about the post-Faulkner South, has written what is advertised as a prequel to Gatsby, Nick’s story before Fitzgerald gave him voice. Apparently the novel was finished some five years ago, publication delayed till Fitzgerald’s work dropped out of copyright. The law relating to infringement of copyright can be strict, but really Farris Smith and his publishers might reasonably have risked an early publication, for, apart from the name, Nick Carroway, and the fidelity to Fitzgerald’s brief notice of Nick’s pre-Gatsby life, there is no other connection.

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Indeed the distance between the two novels is so great that Farris Smith might have called his hero Dick rather than Nick, and the connection with Gatsby might not even have been remarked. Of course, highlighting the connection and delaying publication till now clearly makes good commercial sense. “Prequel to Gatsby” is a selling-point. Indeed yes, but it may also be a distraction. In truth the reader is well-advised to forget Fitzgerald and read Nick as a novel which exists in its own right.

Nick, by Michael Farris Smith

The first section is a war novel, interspersed with memories of Nick’s childhood. His service at the front is interrupted by leave in Paris where he meets and falls in love with a girl who sells picture-frames from a cart which she trundles round the streets. All fictional accounts of war on the Western Front are nowadays derivative; they can’t be anything else, so many memoirs and earlier novels about life and experience in the trenches and tunnels having been written. Nevertheless, Farris Smith has absorbed the abundant material and let his imagination play on it so well that Nick’s experiences are convincing. One might add that at times the rhythm of his prose is more Hemingway than Fitzgerald. There are some nice scenes behind the lines too. As for the waif-girl in Paris, she belongs very pleasingly to the French silent films of the Twenties or Rene Clair’s first talkies.

Back in America, Nick goes to New Orleans instead of returning home. There he becomes involved in the city’s low life, just as Prohibition is being imposed on the USA, with war veterans asking if they had fought the war in order to be denied a beer or Bourbon on their return home. The New Orleans section of the novel inevitably has echoes of earlier fiction set in that city, but nevertheless exists convincingly and enjoyably in its own right.

One does find oneself wondering how one would have read this novel if one’s attention hadn’t been drawn to its relationship to Gatsby. This indeed is rather distracting. Moreover, just as in the war section, the prose seems to echo Hemingway more often than Fitzgerald, so also the post-war dislocation of the returned soldier is at least as reminiscent of Hemingway’s short stories as of anything Fitzgerald wrote; and not perhaps only because his war service didn’t take him overseas to France or Italy.

Being always somewhat suspicious of prequels or sequels written by someone other than the original novelist, I approached Nick without much enthusiasm, and was agreeably surprised to find myself held by the story and finding it both good and enjoyable – not always the same thing. In short, it’s a novel that works even if you have never read Gatsby, perhaps works better indeed if you forget all about Fitzgerald.

Nick, by Michael Farris Smith, No Exit Press, 317pp, £12.99

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