This novel, just released as the copyright on The Great Gatsby expires, tells the story of its narrator before he met Gatsby. In its first hundred pages or so, Nick Carraway struggles to save his life and do his job in the trenches and tunnels of the First World War. On the furloughs he gets, he travels to see Paris and meets Ella, a starving artist and street vendor with whom he falls in love. Their story and his are told in wonderful prose from inside our hero’s head. We get Paris in the late-1910’s, the cafés and the bridges and the sidewalks and all the rest. And we get the battlefield, then the trenches, then the maze of underground tunnels as Nick takes the assignment to work with the rats and without daylight, burrowing under enemy lines. We even get the French countryside as he recoups from a disaster that nearly kills him.
Then, one-hundred-and-eighteen pages in, Nick is on his way home from the war. Still a bit dazed and confused, he inexplicably decides to take a train out of Chicago’s Union Station to New Orleans instead of home to his parents in Minnesota. What follows is a story centered on two other characters we’ve never met and hope never to come across again—a brothel owner, Collette, and a rum-running magnate, Judah. Nick is no longer anywhere near the center of the story; he’s a tag-along in a different book entirely, and knows less about what’s happening to these other people than we do. The story has no point, much less one that bears on Nick or what he wants or needs or cares about. It feels very much as if the author had half of a book to fill before the brief endgame where Nick catches the glimpse of Gatsby we’ve all read, and decided to fill the gap with an unpublished story he’d written about entirely different people in an entirely different place. Sadly, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the tale; standing on its own, it wouldn’t be worthy of publication, certainly not for an accomplished writer like Farris Smith. And it goes on for one-hundred-and-sixty more pages . . .
The front cover of the just-released hardcover has a one-word blurb—“MASTERFUL”—from none other than Richard Russo. I suspect he’s basing this on the first hundred pages and never made it past there, and I wouldn’t fault him for being deceived. It’s exactly how I felt about the first hundred pages, and I would never have anticipated what came next—a different and longer story that has little if anything to do with Nick, and isn’t all that interesting.
In the end, Nick gets home, and a year or so later moves east, where he catches his first glimpse of Gatsby. If this had happened on page 125 or so, Nick would have made a first-rate novella, and a worthy addition of sorts to the Gatsby canon.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .