It is a brave and ambitious project to write the backstory of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, The Great Gatsby, but that is what Michael Farris Smith does in his sixth novel, Nick. One of Smith’s most compelling insights is that many of the high-flying men partying through the Roaring ’20s, as depicted in Fitzgerald’s great novel, had only recently returned from the harrowing trench warfare of the First World War. “Shell shock,” “battle fatigue” and PTSD were poorly understood at that time and often simply dismissed as cowardice. In previous novels, Smith has written eloquently and sometimes in excruciating detail about masculine brutality and trauma. He does so again in Nick.
The novel opens with Nick at a cafe in Paris on leave from the war. When he meets and falls in love with a destitute artist, he debates going AWOL and staying with his beloved, but he is Minnesota born, the son of a small-town hardware store owner and a deeply depressed mother, and he knows where his duty lies. His return to the trenches is vividly depicted: Smith’s descriptions of warfare are cinematic, chilling and unforgettable.
At war’s end, Nick searches Paris for his love but is unable to find her. He is among the last soldiers to return to America, clearly traumatized and unable to go back to Minnesota. Instead he travels to New Orleans and winds up in the city’s notorious red-light district, where a bond with a fellow scarred soldier offers enough redemption for Nick to return home to recover, then travel on to East Egg and his meeting with Gatsby.
This is just an outline of a deeper investigation of war and its consequences. In style and theme, this Nick will remind readers of another Nick: the character Nick Adams of Ernest Hemingway’s best short stories.