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Who Was Nick Before ‘Gatsby’?


The trenches, horrible as they are, aren’t as bad as the forest, and the forest, bad as it is, isn’t as awful as the tunnels. Nick endures them all, suffers, is left for dead and rises again. He finds Ella, loses her, then finds and loses her again. When he arrives back in America after the war, he stumbles “sunkeyed and deranged” off a train in New Orleans and straight into a blood feud between his fellow veteran Judah and Judah’s estranged wife, Colette, who runs a brothel.

A great deal happens in this story. Miles are covered, cities explored, people collide to loving or lethal effect, but Smith creates an elegiac, meditative tone that serves as an apt counterpoint for the story’s through-line of desperation. “She had felt it all in that moment,” he writes of Colette seeing Judah on his return from the war, “the separation and the pain inflicted upon him and the pain inflicted upon her and the quiet space when she believed that the death which had separated them was nothing as acute as this moment of recognition.” We hear echoes of Fitzgerald, of course, but also of Faulkner, Hemingway and a less baroque Cormac McCarthy. It’s a classic American sound, and Smith renders it with sufficient intensity that his iteration of chaos and depravity in 1919, in the wake of war, feels very much alive and relevant to 2021.

The only time I felt even slightly scanted by this fine novel was remembering that moment at the end of Chapter 2 of “The Great Gatsby,” when Nick is in the elevator with Mr. McKee, the “pale feminine man from the flat below.” One moment they’re discussing getting together for lunch, and the next, following a brief stutter of ellipses, Nick is standing beside McKee’s bed, and McKee himself is sitting up between the sheets in his underwear. I would have liked to see Smith take a run at illuminating this small nudge of a scene, so determinedly ignored by generations of English teachers.

In any case, Smith leaves Nick where he should, where we all first found him, in the cottage at West Egg at the start of summer, noticing a green dock light on the other side of the bay. So it ends, and so it begins.



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