Smith latches on to one of these facts and completely forgets about the others. His Nick is the son of a man who runs a hardware business, which makes it hard to see how he made it to Yale, bond dealing and the high-class social circles of Daisy and Tom. There is no failed romance with a Midwestern debutante of the kind that Scott Fitzgerald experienced himself and imagined for Nick. Instead of fleshing out a backstory from these materials, Smith merely uses Nick as a hook on which to hang a war novel. Or rather, a Great War and its aftermath novel.
Being always somewhat suspicious of prequels or sequels written by someone other than the original novelist, I approached Nick without much enthusiasm, and was agreeably surprised to find myself held by the story and finding it both good and enjoyable – not always the same thing. In short, it’s a novel that works even if you have never read Gatsby, perhaps works better indeed if you forget all about Fitzgerald.
Jonathan Bate has generously given us two books for the price of one — a biography of John Keats (1795-1821) interleaved with a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), where romantic poetry about nightingales meets Jazz Age novels involving ‘sexually liberated flappers, fast cars and bootleg partying’.
Bate points out what the authors had in common. Each grew up in a world at war: the Napoleonic battles in Keats’s case, the Kaiser and the trenches in Fitzgerald’s. Both had physical insecurities: Keats was ‘self-conscious about being below average height’ — barely 5ft. Fitzgerald’s worries were in another area: to check whether his penis was of normal size, he went around the Louvre examining the statues. It is in their works, however, that the writers join hands across the centuries. Both were attuned to the idea of loss: lost love, happiness, beauty that will only fade like the scent of roses.
Smith is an accomplished writer of Southern gothic fiction; having exhausted his Hemingway, he sends Nick to encounter a Faulknerian subplot in New Orleans, to endow Nick with more unnecessary reasons for his reactions to the central love triangle of Gatsby. Comparing Nick with The Great Gatsby may seem invidious, but Nick doesn’t merely invite it; it demands it. On its own terms it is readable enough, but we are not being asked to read it on its own terms. We are being asked to read it because of our regard for Gatsby — a regard that Nick can’t truly be said to manifest.