Book review: ‘Gatsby’ character gets rich backstory in ‘Nick’

Author Michael Farris Smith
Courtesy of Little, Brown
Author Michael Farris Smith Courtesy of Little, Brown

Nick Carraway is arguably not of one of American fiction’s most compelling characters. He is rarely thought of beyond high school English classes and surveys of 20th century fiction. Not even Tobey Maguire’s depiction of him in Baz Luhrmann’s highly stylized retelling of “The Great Gatsby” did much to leave a lasting impression. Yes, he is central to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story and necessary to move the narrative along, but he isn’t fully developed or very interesting. Nevertheless, in master storyteller and Southern Book prize finalist Michael Farris Smith’s new novel “Nick,” Carraway is compelling, complicated and demands our attention.

We first meet Nick Carraway, an Army Sergeant in Paris on leave from World War I, soaking up the cafes and final moments with his paramour Ella, a woman so captivating he considers not returning to the front and instead fleeing with her. “I want to see you in the morning when you wake,” she says, trying to persuade him to stay. It’s a fate he doesn’t choose and one that will haunt him the rest of his days.

Within a few pages, we are drawn into the grim realities of WWI. Smith details the horrors in gruesome and vivid detail. The trenches, tunnels and forests of Europe come to life on the page; the dirt and grime, the rank smells, the constant hunger and fear felt by Nick are ever present. The only escape from this dreadful existence is into the memories of his week with Ella and memories from his childhood.

Through flashbacks we learn about Nick’s upbringing in the Midwest, a seemingly idyllic existence, but one marred by his mother’s depression, referred to as the darkness, and his father’s inability to fix her or cope with her illness. “Closed doors and the curtains pulled. The docile nature of an evening of conversation replaced by the lull of electric light or the clatter of dishes in the sink. His father downstairs and his mother upstairs in the bedroom. The bedroom door locked. The light off behind the door.”

The isolation felt in his childhood home during the dark times is palpable on the page and not unlike the isolation Nick feels at war. It is this sense of helplessness he felt as a child that seems to fuel his desire to try to save people, a central personality trait that Smith explores throughout his novel and one apparent in Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

When granted another leave, Nick returns to Ella but finds her near death. As he nurses her back to health, he is consumed by guilt and determined to stay with her and leave the war behind, but she pushes him away and tells him to return when the war is over. With great reluctance he leaves and throws himself into the most dangerous assignments back at the front, wishing for his own swift death to release him from his remorse and the losses he has suffered.

When the war ends, Carraway boards a train destined for home but changes course and heads to New Orleans, with the improbable hope of finding Ella on its streets and to escape the new reality of a post-war existence. He spends his days in the city chasing shadowy female figures down alleys and into doorways, picturing Ella on every face he sees. This fruitless search leads him to a brothel in Frenchtown on an ill-fated night that changes the course of his life and embroils him in the tragic lives of Judah, a broken and severely injured war veteran, and Collette, the brothel’s madam.

Former lovers, Collette and Judah are hellbent on destroying each other’s lives and livelihoods. Smith puts Nick at the center of their battle, himself a broken and guilt-ridden man, trying desperately to find redemption and, once again, invested in someone else’s well-being instead of his own.

The desperation of post-war New Orleans and its residents are richly detailed — the addiction, depravity and lack of morality — especially in the characters of Judah and Collette, who you don’t necessarily root for but follow eagerly in this propulsive novel.

As the story comes to its conclusion, the reader is left with a deep understanding of who Nick Carraway is, the trauma he has experienced and how it shapes his relationships and actions. Smith has created a protagonist that is fully realized and makes sense as the man we later meet in “The Great Gatsby,” a man silently fighting his own demons while playing a supportive role in the lives of others.

Smith has accomplished what good historical fiction strives to do. He has written a novel not just set in the past but seemingly from the past, as though a contemporary of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Writing about the war, the desolation of Paris and the debauchery of New Orleans in stunning detail, he seems to have lived these experiences and witnessed events firsthand.

As we leave 2020, a year filled with collective grief and great losses, Smith has given us a novel that examines the long-term effects of trauma and transports us to another time, a hundred years ago, when lives were devastated and rebuilding felt impossible. While it is hard to find hope in the desolate world Smith has created, he has given us a haunting read that will linger long after the last page is read.

FICTION

‘Nick’

by Michael Farris Smith

Little, Brown & Company

304 pages, $27

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