Michael Farris Smith

No Exit Press, £12.99

Review by Neil Mackay

What a journey I’ve been on with this book. I began with bad preconceptions but approached the novel with a sneer kept firmly in check. Then I surprised myself – it wasn’t half bad for the first 100 pages. In fact, at times, it was damn good. I began to feel not just grudging respect, but also admiration for the writer. After a while, though, my mood changed as the book lost itself.

Nick purports to tell the back story of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby. It’s a prequel; Nick’s life-story before he met the most glamorous, dangerous, phoney dreamer of Jazz Age America. For those who haven’t read Gatsby – what to say? It’s a love story – of the doomed affair between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Fay as told by Nick; the story of a nation, a time; it defined a generation; it reimagined the novel; it sculpted writers and writing throughout the 20th century. It’s as embedded within English literature as Keats, whose poetry so influenced Fitzgerald.

Nick’s author, Michael Farris Smith, deserves respect for daring to take on a Fitzgerald creation, but he does himself no favours trying to dress his work in the great writer’s clothes. Smith can write well, tell a good story and move a reader – but he should have done so on his own terms. His book, Nick, may not have come to such public attention without the Gatsby disguise – but if the author had chosen to make this book stand on its own two feet, it would have been much the better for it. The ruse of the Gatsby prequel is more often than not poorly done, in a novel which itself has flaws enough.

To say Gatsby has fans is an understatement. For many, it’s sacramental. I’m one of those devotees. I’ve read Gatsby every year since my teens. In another life, 30 years ago, I taught Gatsby. So when I heard Smith had dared to take on Nick’s story I was equal parts impressed at the sheer bravado and bewildered that any writer would see it as a risk worth taking.

Nevertheless, I quelled knee-jerk scorn and adopted a blank mind. It’s a critic’s job to say if a book is worth reading – not if it lives up to fanboy expectations. To my surprise, I quickly found myself thoroughly enjoying Nick – and willing the writer to succeed in the face of the literary challenge he’d set himself. In Gatsby, we’re told that Nick fought in the First World War. So, Smith begins his tale with Nick on leave embarked on a love affair with Ella, a Parisian bohemian. Readers familiar with Gatsby will have to perform mental gymnastics here.

The story of Nick and Ella’s doomed love and the war on the Western Front is good – vivid, visual, strong, poetic. But the Nick that Smith creates doesn’t feel like the Nick of Gatsby. In fact, with some sort of perhaps unconscious meta take on the literature of the Lost Generation, Smith’s Nick feels like a Hemingway hero. The opening chapters are more like an homage to A Farewell to Arms than a prequel to Gatsby. The style sometimes even evokes Hemingway – particularly in dialogue with its staccato sentences, or the repetition of “and”.

The substance of Nick’s opening story, though, felt more inspired by Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong – with its depiction of war in the sapper tunnels under the lines of the Western Front. Still, leave all that aside – Hemingway’s borrowed tone, Faulks’s purloined setting – and the story of Nick and Ella is good. I cared about them – if Smith had stayed here, I would have accepted the faults and said, “good job”. The problems, though, really set in as the book shifts to the aftermath of the war and Nick returns to America, ending up a drifter in New Orleans.

The book morphs into a hardboiled, gothic, semi-western. In places it felt like Smith was channelling the spirit of EL Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times. The story finds Nick caught up in a cycle of violence between feuding lovers in a criminal underworld of hired killers and brothels. There are kidnappings, arson, murders, robberies. It’s cinematic stuff – but why is Nick here? Where has Ella gone? What is the story now about?

Ella – who should have been the novel’s linchpin – becomes a mere ghost, all but forgotten. Why did we ever learn of her in the first place? With or without the Gatsby trope, the book would have felt like two novels in one. Throw in the Gatsby schtick – the odd hint here and there to this or that scene in Fitzgerald – and it’s simply irritating towards the end.

This is disappointing as Smith can be a beautiful writer. He’s no Fitzgerald (who is?) but he can make words sing when he wants. The cynic in me feels this was a half decent novel which was given a needless Gatsby spin. (Prepare for a glut of Gatsby-inspired books, after Fitzgerald’s work went out of copyright in January this year.) At heart, there’s nothing in this novel which relates to the character of Nick as imagined by Fitzgerald, nor the story of Gatsby.

My suspicions were compounded by a clunky coda in which Nick washes up, after his essentially pointless journey through France and New Orleans, on New York’s Long Island – famously reimagined as West Egg by Fitzgerald – and spots a lonely character staring at a green light at the end of a dock across the bay from his new home. It’s the classic Gatsby motif in Fitzgerald’s novel.

Nick, Fitzgerald tells us, is the cousin of Gatsby’s great love Daisy. She lives on Long Island. The fact that an obvious reference to Daisy – which could have been made relatively gracefully – is missed seems entirely telling of how little this book tries to connect with Fitzgerald’s material. Smith would have done much better to simply write this book on his own terms, rather than robbing Fitzgerald’s grave.