Nick and Jay seem to have little in common in a personal sense.
Oh, they were in the War over there, on the Front and in the Argonne Forest.
But they never met till years after the war on Long Island, New York.
By then Jay had become fabulously wealthy.
Nick had struggled to regain his sanity and find his way back to the States and himself.
Jay did everything he could to lose himself in his false identity and name.
Yet, it appears, they were fated to meet. Or so it seems.
That's where Michael Farris Smith, Oxford, Mississippi-based writer, leaves them. (Nice irony there. Jay had attended that “other Oxford” for a stretch.) Nick in a cottage outside New York City and Jay – maybe he is that shadowy figure on a dock on Long Island Sound.
“Nick” is Smith's sixth novel, and in some ways his most ambitious.
Nick Carraway, you know, was the narrator and character of F. Scott Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby.”
That novel, published in 1925 in the midst of the Jazz Age, defined the era of wild celebration and living like there was no tomorrow in the decade between The War to End All Wars and the Depression that was capable of ending capitalism and the kind of personal freedom that the characters in “Gatsby” were exploiting for all it was worth.
It is hallowed, and treacherous, literary ground on which to tread.
The Fitzgerald masterwork's copyright expired on Jan. 1 of 2021 and so it became free game for anyone who dared to play with it.
Others include “Daisy's Riposte,” “Jay the Great” and “The Great Gatsby: The Graphic Novel.”
Fitzgerald's is a modern novel, in sensibility and language – beautifully subtle and, well, modern.
It's like Gatsby's ostentatious mansion on West Egg and his swell, long extravagant yellow car. Modern, for the time, in attitude. It's hard to say how, but the reality of it has that quality of modernity.
It is not like books by another 20th century master, William Faulkner, whose writing is like a foreign yet familiar language.
But “Nick” has its own world. For all of the glamor of “Gatsby,” “Nick” has the opposite, but in an alluring way.
I felt beholden to reread Gatsby, 50 years after the first time I read it, which was nearly a half-century after it was published.
It was well worth it. Fitzgerald's prose sharpens your sensibilities, makes you pay attention to every word, sentence and scene for fear of missing something.
Fitzgerald was smitten by the design for the Gatsby dust jacket artist Francis Cugat proposed (for which the artist was paid $100) and wrote to his publisher, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”
Cugat called his design “Celestial Eyes.” The novel was first published with this jacket in 1925.
Two seductive feminine eyes float in the dark sky above the Coney Island midway ablaze with lights and wheels.
A first edition “Gatsby” – with dust jacket – has sold for well into six figures, while the book itself only a few thousand dollars.
It's unlikely that Smith's dust jacket will ever fetch anything like that.
Clearly, it is an echo of the Cugat jacket – with a dark blue background, two beautiful eyes of a woman at the bottom, which is aflame, reflecting the conflagration of a New Orleans bordello.
Nick had found his way from his Midwestern home to France, where he moved back and forth from the Front to Paris on leave.
He met Ella in dark corners of the City of Light. She was eking out a living selling picture frames and living in an attic full of theatrical costumes, cast-off fantasies.
They fell for each other. Just as Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan had done. So this, too, is a story of love lost and a failed effort to regain it.
Eventually, the war ends and Nick returns to the states, but not home in Minnesota. He had to work through his terrible war experiences – bayoneting at close quarters, bodies thrown into pits, machine guns and earthen tunnels dug beneath the enemy across No Man's Land as a way to destroy him with a subterranean explosion that would surprise and obliterate.
After arriving at the Chicago station, on a whim he takes a train south to New Orleans, Frenchtown.
Fueled by cheap drink and opium, ex-Doughboys trying to escape the war sought the cheapest and most expensive kind of female companionship.
Quite the contrast to Jay Gatsby (one James Gatz of North Dakota).
Smith's novel has been mislabeled a prequel to “Gatsby.” No. It stands on its own, with its wondrously realized prose.
And Smith's novel cannot suggest a sequel, because Fitzgerald took care of that. That sacred ground must not be defiled.
»JACK WEATHERLY is the senior writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. He cane reached at firstname.lastname@example.org