“NICK” by Michael Farris Smith (published by Oldcastle Books)

Casting light on a pre-Gatsby life

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, published in 1925, remains one of American literature's best-known novels. The first-person story was told not through the eyes of the mysterious multi-millionaire Gatsby himself but of his neighbour, Nick Carraway, and author Smith hit upon the idea of giving us an imaginary life of Carraway pre-Fitzgerald.
24. January 2021 14:18

In “The Great Gatsby”, Carraway comes from a family who have been prominent well-to-do people in a Middle Western city for three generations. His father runs a wholesale hardware business. Carraway graduated from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1915 and fought in the Great War, returning restless to America and so deciding in spring 1922 to go east to learn the bond business.

He rents a “weather-beaten cardboard” bungalow, an eyesore, in the Long Island village of West Egg, outside New York, and finds himself next to a luxurious estate inhabited by a certain Jay Gatsby. Gatsby’s place is a colossal mansion, “a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy”, with a tower on one side, a marble swimming pool and more than 40 acres of lawn and garden.

More importantly, for Gatsby, across the bay of Long Island Sound are the white palaces of fashionable East Egg, and here live Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Tom was a Yale football star who Nick knew during his college days, and Daisy is a distant cousin of Carraway’s. Nick will later learn that she met Gatsby in around 1917 when the latter was an officer in the American Expeditionary Forces.

They fell in love but when Gatsby was deployed overseas Daisy reluctantly married Tom. When Carraway meets Gatsby he discovers that his enigmatic neighbour has an obsession to reunite with his former lover. Gatsby stands alone on his lawn at night staring across the bay at a green light on a dock by the Buchanans’ place.

He is hoping that his newfound wealth and dazzling parties will bring Daisy back to him. Gatsby, who is seldom seen at his own soirées, uses Nick to stage a reunion with Daisy, and Fitzgerald’s book continues, with tragic consequences.

Which brings us – backwards – to Michael Farris Smith’s account of Carraway’s life pre-Gatsby. As mentioned in “The Great Gatsby”, Carraway fought amid the battlefields of World War I. Now, in “NICK” he dreams of his lover, Ella, back in Paris, and of his Minnesota parents and his near-idyllic upbringing in the Midwest.

This Carraway is a moving, full-bodied depiction of a man who has been knocked loose from his moorings and is trying to claw back into his own life. “I need to go home,” he says at one point, then thinks: “I’m not going home. … And I won’t ever say that again.”

But the Nick we encounter in Paris is a man with “A life divided. A mind divided”, trying and mostly failing to reconcile his experience of combat with reality, and he will run this razor’s edge of sanity through the rest of the war and into its only marginally less harrowing aftermath.

The trenches, horrible as they are, aren’t as bad as the forest, and the forest, bad as it is, isn’t as awful as the tunnels. Nick endures them all, suffers, is left for dead and rises again. He finds Ella, loses her, then finds and loses her again. When he arrives back in America after the war, he stumbles “sunkeyed and deranged” off a train in New Orleans and straight into a blood feud between his fellow veteran Judah and Judah’s estranged wife, Colette, who runs a brothel.

A great deal happens in this story. Miles are covered, cities explored, people collide to loving or lethal effect. Smith brings Nick out of the shadows and leaves him where he should, where we all first found him, in the run-down cottage at West Egg at the start of summer, noticing a green dock light on the other side of the bay.

And his neighbour doing the same. So it ends, and so it begins.

Michael Farris Smith is the author of “NICK”, “Blackwood”, “The Fighter”, “Desperation Road”, “Rivers” and “The Hands of Strangers”. His novels have appeared on Best of the Year lists with Esquire, Southern Living, Book Riot and numerous others. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, Bitter Southerner, Garden & Gun and more.

Leave a Reply