In the introduction to Nick, Michael Farris-Smith talks about his relationship with its “source material”, the classic F Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby. That relationship shifted over the years and his response to that novel changed as he grew and changed. As this happened the character who he found himself most fascinated with was the book’s narrator Nick Carraway. He realised that the book does not deal except briefly with the experiences that shaped Nick in his twenties and Farris-Smith, now identifying with Carraway, felt the need to explore these experiences.
When the book opens, it is the last years of World War I and Nick Carraway is a soldier ending a seven day leave pass in Paris. He has met a girl and they have spent all that time together. When he returns to the horrors of the front, Nick will recall their brief but intense relationship, and it is the thought of her that keeps him going through the mud and blood and death. But nothing is how we imagine it and the traumatic outcome of their second meeting drives Nick deeper into the horrors of the War, horrors which he barely survives. On his return to America, rather than going back to his family, Nick runs to New Orleans where he becomes involved in the broken relationship between another damaged veteran and his wife who had survived his absence (and report of his death) by running a local brothel.
Much like Farris-Smith’s other novels, Nick is dark. The first section, while dealing in World War One tropes that have been well used over the years is effective in conveying the trauma that Nick will carry with him for the rest of his life. The rest of the book sets a bit of a template for the character in that he kind of drifts into relationships but once he does so, he sticks, becoming part participant but part observer.
In some respects Nick works as a mirror image of Gatsby. The Great Gatsby deals with the upper classes of New York, the tension between old money and new money, and the fiction that Jay Gatsby creates to break into that world. While the bulk of Nick is concerned with a tooth and claw world, the trenches of France and the saloons and brothels of New Orleans, with people who put on no pretence and are just struggling to be themselves and the collateral damage that comes with violence. In this way Nick, as the observer, becomes a throughline of these two very different worlds. In each case he finds his someone to quietly support no matter what their crimes, and sticks by them both to help but also, in some respects just to see what happens.
And while this is supposed to be a kind of spiritual prequel to The Great Gatsby it is sometimes hard to see the point. Nick Carraway is a passive character, being drawn along in the wake of others, and this is a trait that is replicated here. While the book does explain how Nick arrived to the beginning of Gatsby, with the exception of this short coda in which Nick moves to Long Island and witnesses a figure staring across the water at a green light, the book could have been about anyone.
The author’s foreword gives some hint as to what Farris-Smith is trying to achieve with Nick. And that is to explore through fiction his own journey to becoming an author. While he had a much less traumatic time in Europe in his twenties, it feels like he is trying to put himself in the shoes of the character. Or rather to imagine how he might have behaved if he had been in similar places but during the late 1910s and early 1920s
While there are plenty of prequels hitting the stands at the moment, Nick is something a little different. Farris-Smith does not try to slavishly explain every turn or revelation in The Great Gatsby. Rather this book provides depth and backstory to one of its central characters. It is in many ways a stand alone story of a man dealing with trauma and expectation. But it contextualises the actions of a central character in a seminal piece of literature, managing to potentially deepen that work without impinging too heavily on it.