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'Nick' review: A not-so-great 'Gatsby' prequel

World War I plays a crucial role in

World War I plays a crucial role in "Nick," which tells the back story of how Nick Carroway eventually came to Long Island in "The Great Gatsby." Credit: AP

NICK by Michael Farris Smith (Little, Brown. 304 pp., $27)

In one of the many famous moments of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, Nick warns Gatsby, "You can't repeat the past," and Gatsby replies, incredulously, "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!"

He was right, though early.

On Jan. 1, the copyright on "The Great Gatsby" expired, and anybody can repeat it. The Fitzgerald literary estate and Scribner's, which has sold tens of millions of copies of "Gatsby," no longer control this essential text of our cultural past. Among the authors who waited for Fitzgerald's copyright to expire is Michael Farris Smith. Several years ago, he conceived the bold and arduous project of writing a prequel to "The Great Gatsby." Now unencumbered by legal restrictions, he's published "Nick," a story about the years leading up to Nick Carraway's move to Long Island, where he falls under the spell of that charming gangster.

Smith, the author of several Southern Gothic novels, is a talented writer who approaches Fitzgerald's work with reverence and close attention to detail. Anyone who knows "The Great Gatsby" will hear echoes of that book's luxurious melancholy, as when Smith writes, "Nick sat with his memories in a way that others sat with photographs of wives or children, holding the worn edges and staring at the faces as if staring into an unanswerable question.

"Nick" opens in France during World War I. Against his father's advice, Nick enlisted to get away from the dull, prescribed routines of the Midwest. That plan succeeded too well: He now finds himself enduring the horrors of trench warfare. While on leave in Paris, he falls in love and dares to imagine a happy future with a woman who is "blunt and beautiful and scratching and clawing and free and bound," which sounds like he's dating a leopard. But when that dream collapses in an intensely tragic way, the valley of ashes across Europe reflects his personal desolation.

Creating a worthy homage to Fitzgerald's finest novel is a remarkable accomplishment, and Smith's explanation of Nick's detached personality makes perfect sense. It feels, though, more like confirmation than expansion of the original story. If Smith does no violence to "The Great Gatsby," he also breaks open little space for himself. To its own detriment, "Nick" remains as polite and well-behaved as Nick Carraway himself. We want a disruptive revelation; instead, we get a plausible alibi.

In the second half of the novel, Nick returns to the United States "sunkeyed and deranged" and decides on a whim to go to New Orleans instead of home. With Prohibition on the horizon, the Big Easy is a panicked celebration of decadence. One night he happens upon Judah, a fellow vet, hobbling home. Although badly scarred by poison gas on the battlefield, Judah has returned from Europe and attained a degree of power and wealth on the illicit streets of New Orleans. With a mixture of pathos and authority, Judah calls upon Nick's sympathy, and he becomes privy to the wounded man's secret griefs. Before long, Nick begins serving as an intermediary in Judah's destructive relationship with a woman he once loved and lost.

What develops offers a macabre counterpoint to "The Great Gatsby." The mansions of Long Island have been replaced by the saloons of New Orleans, and the gangster subtext is now blaring like a jazz trombone.

There's plenty of grim drama here — arson! kidnapping! murder! — but the story of Judah and the woman he's violently obsessed with takes over the joint. Fitzgerald may have sometimes pushed Nick to the sidelines of his glamorous romance, but in the pages of "The Great Gatsby," Nick always remains the thoughtful narrator, the watcher simultaneously enchanted and repelled. Indeed, that's what makes the otherwise meretricious story of Gatsby and Daisy so compelling. Withdraw Nick's perspective and the lurid plot sticks out of the water like a shipwreck at low tide. By denying Nick that crucial role and pushing him aside, Smith asks that we become invested in a set of noir caricatures and their lurid spat simply for its own sake.

We know that Nick will finally extract himself from this bizarre relationship in New Orleans, but we also know he will soon find himself in another one in New York but with better clothes and more beautiful prose. In the final pages, when Smith shows Nick outside his little house catching a glimpse of a man next door who seems to "hold some magical stature," it's as if Nick has learned nothing.

So we beat on, as someone once said.

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