Included in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third collection of short fiction, All the Sad Young Men, is “Absolution,” a story originally conceived as a glimpse into “Jay Gatbsy’s early life.” Fitzgerald said he excised the story from The Great Gatsby to preserve “a sense of mystery,” but “Absolution” protagonist Rudolph Miller’s relationship to the iconic Gatsby remains fascinating. Miller, a young German-American boy from a lower-middle class Catholic family, confesses to his priest that he believes he’s not his parents’ actual son. He imagines himself a British prince of “suave nobility” named “Blatchford Sarnemington,” becoming that boy simply by closing his eyes and repeating the name.
Of course, “Absolution” is nowhere to be found in The Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald’s classic novel of one man’s pursuit of the American Dream is no worse for its absence. But the overarching theme of making a decisive break with the past to assume a new identity links Miller and Gatsby. One can imagine that—besides the not-insignificant challenge of making his fortune—for Jimmy Gatz to shuck off his middle-class, Midwestern past and slip into the Anglo-American elite of West Egg, New York, he only needed to change his name and concoct a plausible backstory. But not everyone who wants to reinvent himself and gain entry to the inner circle of American success has it so easy.
In her absorbing new novel, No One is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts transposes elements of The Great Gatsby from the “dignified homogeneity” of Fitzgerald’s moneyed Hamptons to the black community of Pinewood, a dying furniture factory town on the western edge of the North Carolina Piedmont. As the novel begins, rumors abound regarding JJ Ferguson’s return to build a lavish house in the hills above Pinewood. Sylvia Ross, mother of JJ’s high school sweetheart Ava, suspects that JJ has come home to win back her daughter, who is unhappily married and desperate to have a baby.
When Sylvia finds JJ snooping around her garden, she welcomes him in as an old friend, but acknowledges she’ll never call him “Jay,” the name he’s gone by for years since leaving Pinewood and remaking his life. Sylvia insists that she knows why JJ came back, and warns him that Ava has long since moved “on to another part of her life.” JJ counters, “Life goes on. I know it has to. But that other life that we already went through, it might come back… All I’m saying is we only know about the past. Why not redo it?”
Sylvia replies, “You’re going to redo the past, are you? You went away from here and lost your mind.”
For anyone who has read The Great Gatsby, this discussion carries unmistakable echoes of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby’s celebrated exchange:
“I wouldn’t expect too much of her,” [Carraway] ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” [Gatsby] cried incredulously. “Of course you can!”
But JJ and Sylvia’s conversation goes to places Carraway’s and Gatsby’s never could. JJ is nearly as vague as Gatsby about how he’s made his fortune, but he hasn’t amassed the wealth that Gatsby flaunts at the lavish parties he throws every Saturday night. JJ describes himself as “one-house rich.” But JJ and Sylvia also acknowledge something that neither Gatsby, nor Carraway, nor Fitzgerald will ever understand:
“You know what, Mrs. Sylvia,” JJ says, “turns out you don’t get over being poor.”
Sylvia replies, “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
The idea of a contemporary, African-American twist on The Great Gatsby is an intriguing one, given the virtual invisibility of black people in a novel considered so quintessentially American. The most noteworthy mention of race in Gatsby comes early on, when Tom Buchanan warns against the supposedly imperiled state of the white race, referencing KKK-affiliated eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. Of course, the prospect of a black uprising seems remote to the white characters of East and West Egg. Daisy mocks her husband’s foray into semi-serious subject matter with a wink and a dismissive “Tom’s getting very profound.”
It’s entertaining to suss out the parallels to Gatsby in No One is Coming to Save Us, such as the venerable sign for Simmy’s, a once whites-only diner, that presides over Pinewood like the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg dissected in so many high school English papers. But that’s parlor-game stuff, and No One is Coming to Save Us is no one’s parlor-game book. The many perspectives in Watts’ novel—each belonging to characters deeply enmeshed in the “heat and sweat of real life” that Father Schwartz begs Rudolph Miller to avoid in “Absolution”—sets No One Is Coming to Save Us apart from Gatsby, in which a single voice predominates.
Although No One is Coming to Save Us is Sylvia’s book if it’s anyone’s, Watts establishes empathy with even the least among her characters by letting us view the story through so many different eyes. We learn early on that Sylvia distrusts both her daughter’s philandering husband and her own. But each of these men takes over the narrative long enough for us to understand their own frustrations and disgust with their weaknesses. In this respect, No One is Coming to Save Us expands upon Watts’ captivating debut collection of short stories, We Are Taking Only What We Need, which introduces Sylvia and her feckless husband in its closing story.
Even more so than in Gatsby, each character in No One is Coming to Save Us measures the gulf between what they wanted in life and what they got, who they wanted to be and what they became. For Sylvia’s generation, that meant “dirt roaders who wanted a better version of the life their own parents had led. A bigger house with indoor bathrooms, a desk job, a freezer full of good meat.”
Watts’ characters also reconsider not just the choices they’ve made, but what their inability to do things differently says about themselves and their world’s limitations. Sylvia reflects that she hasn’t moved “farther than a strong man could throw [her] from [her] original home place. Had she wanted that life for herself? Had she had a choice?” These questions stand at the heart of No One is Coming to Save Us, notions as essential to American striving as any posed in The Great Gatsby—and much more recognizably scaled.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.