In his new novel, Smith imagines the back story of Nick Carraway, narrator of Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby. Exquisitely written, the book captures the texture and feel of warfare in European trenches and in the streets of Frenchtown, New Orleans. Nick’s spirit is chewed up by the Great War, and to keep himself sane as missiles explode and bodies disintegrate, he relives a short-lived, but passionate affair he had with a woman he met in Paris. When he’s finally given leave and returns to Paris, he finds her physically and emotionally damaged from a self-inflicted abortion.
The first part of the book sizzles with the terror of warfare as Nick fights in the trenches, in the forests, and in the tunnels, where he almost loses his head (literally) but is saved by being face down on the floor crying in despair when a fire bomb explodes.
The second part is somewhat less propulsive. Instead of returning home to his family in Minnesota, he heads to New Orleans. His PTSD is triggered by a deadly fire in a brothel, but he finds solace with another victim of the war. While in New Orleans, he and his companions dive into the depths of degradation from drunken brawls to opium dens. The descriptions of this world vividly depict the material and spiritual plight of the denizens: “… a draft weaved from room to room like a spectral thread. Floorboard slats were missing here and there and gave the floor a gap-toothed grin and the only light came from the sun or from the moon or from the burning matches that lit the burning pipes.”
While occasionally the narrative pace lags, this is a dark, beautifully written story, which should enthrall many readers even if they don’t give a fig about The Great Gatsby.