cover image Nick


Michael Farris Smith. Little, Brown, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-316-52976-1

Smith (Blackwood) offers an evocative if underwhelming origin story for Great Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway. The reader first finds Nick fighting in the trenches during WWI. Then, on leave in Paris, he promptly falls for a French girl named Ella, who becomes sick and sends Nick away. He returns to the front and volunteers for highly dangerous missions, and upon the war’s end returns to Paris only to find Ella gone. Once back stateside, a dejected Nick impulsively takes a train to New Orleans—where he’s drawn to a whorehouse madame and becomes confessor to her saloon-owner ex-husband and other habitués of this debauched demimonde—before moving on to Long Island. As in Gatsby, Nick is more observer than participant, which makes him problematic as a main character; unlike in Fitzgerald’s novel, Nick’s function here isn’t clear. While the war chapters offer striking imagery, the New Orleans section pushes Nick to the margins of an arbitrary story, and by the time he heads north readers won’t have any deeper understanding of him than they do on page one. Smith’s effort is a noble one, but it doesn’t do enough to deepen the reader’s understanding of one of 20th-century American literature’s enduring characters. (Jan.)