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Mike St. ThomasJune 17, 2021
Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, the main character of "Nick," in the 2013 film adaptation of "The Great Gatsby." (Photo Credit: IMDB)

In the spring of 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Max Perkins to tell him that his next novel would have “a catholic element” in it. As he began work on the novel, Fitzgerald centered its opening episode on a Midwestern boy’s confession and reception of the Eucharist. Later, Fitzgerald abandoned this opening, releasing it instead as a stand-alone short story entitled “Absolution.” The novel, which he went on to publish in 1925, was The Great Gatsby.

Nickby MIchael Farris Smith

Little, Brown and Company
296p $27

Though Fitzgerald changed his mind, Gatsby remains rooted in a Catholic sensibility, largely evident in its straddling of spirit and flesh, redemption and sin. Nick Carraway, the narrator, embodies this double vision. His refusal to judge makes him “privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men” and leads him to love and admire Jay Gatsby for his “extraordinary gift of hope,” even though he also represents everything for which Nick has “unaffected scorn.”

On Jan. 1 of this year, The Great Gatsby entered the public domain, just in time for Michael Farris Smith’s new novel Nick, which attempts to tell the backstory of Gatsby’s narrator. Readers looking for a prequel written in the same vein as Fitzgerald’s classic will be disappointed, however. Gone is the innocent, lyrical first-person narrator of Gatsby. Smith’s story is told in the third person, in terse, strong prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The gaudy opulence of West Egg gives way to blood and mud and fire, and the stench of death hangs over Smith’s novel just as the green light does Fitzgerald’s.

Gone is the innocent, lyrical first-person narrator of Gatsby. Smith’s story is told in terse, strong prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

That is not to say that Nick fails. On the contrary, Smith’s novel is transcendent, a chilling portrayal of a man and world broken by unspeakable suffering but sustained, however feebly, by a spark of hope. The first section of the novel takes place in France, alternating between scenes on the battlefront of the First World War and in Paris. Smith effectively juxtaposes the horrors of war with the human warmth of the city, where Nick pursues and finds love.

The loss of that love—and more—sends Nick into a spiral. Nearly catatonic, he volunteers to fight in the tunnels under the trenches at the front, a veritable death sentence. Nick emerges from the tunnels and returns to America with hopes of leaving every part of the war behind him. Haunted by demons, Nick travels to New Orleans and grows enmeshed in the lives of those who run the brothels and bars of the French Quarter. Unlike others, Nick is not drawn to the fleshly pleasures of the city; instead he finds kinship with those who find those pleasures to be an outlet for their grief. One bar owner named Judah is a war survivor like Nick and is dying from the effects of gas poisoning. As Judah moves in and out of opium-induced hazes, Nick nurses him and listens to his story.

Apart from a few scattered echoes, there is very little in the plot of Nick that links it with Gatsby. When, in the novel’s last chapters, Nick moves into the West Egg cottage next door to the mansion owned by his soon-to-be friend, it feels like a deus ex machina, the author trying in vain to synchronize the two independent plots before his story ends.

Despite this, Nick breathes new life into Gatsby’s “Catholic element” in its own way. The incarnational vision of Catholicism makes it impossible to conceive of grace working separately from nature, and in Smith’s novel the seeds of redemption are sown in the black and bloody mire of the war front and of the dens of Bourbon Street.

In Smith’s novel the seeds of redemption are sewn in the black and bloody mire of the war front and of the dens of Bourbon Street.

At the heart of the novel lie several powerful Catholic images. When Nick arrives in New Orleans alone and in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder, a convent of nuns takes him in off the street. Their ministry is to offer clean sheets and warm food to those living in the filth of the city, with no questions asked. As he accepts their invitation, Nick acknowledges that “you cannot run away from yourself,” the beginning of his recovery of his identity. Later, Nick prays at a Catholic church that has for years kept a vigil for the dead, missing and wounded of World War I.

Like Nick, Fitzgerald too was a divided soul from the Midwest who had come East to witness the “abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” Though raised in a devout Catholic family, Fitzgerald ostensibly parted ways with the faith in his early 20s. But the faith never really left him.

He went on to celebrate the major events of his adult life with Catholic rituals, and his first biographer, Arthur Mizener, called him a “spoiled priest.” The scholar Joan M. Allen points to the twin images of candles and carnival lights to describe the tensions present in the identity of the author and his characters: “The carnival lights outshone the candles,” she writes, “but the candles had indelibly touched him.”

Candles and carnival lights are apt metaphors for Nick as well, set as it is among the churches and brothels of New Orleans. Though Smith’s Nick bears little outward resemblance to the narrator of The Great Gatsby, his Catholic double vision remains. In both novels, Nick straddles the terrain of flesh and spirit, watching the world without fully participating in it. This gives him access to the “secret griefs of wild, unknown men” like Gatsby and Judah. “If there is one thing the lost are able to recognize,” Judah muses, “it is the others who are just as wounded and wandering.” In Nick,grief speaks to grief, and redemption is made possible only by entering into the midst of sin and death.

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