At a crucial moment in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby,” when Nick says, “You can’t repeat the past,” Gatsby instantly disagrees: “ ‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’ ”
Whether you should is less clear. Various people — starting with Fitzgerald himself — have been borne back ceaselessly into the past, particularly by trying to repeat “The Great Gatsby.” Since it was published in 1925, the story has been adapted for radio and television, acted out on Broadway, jazzed up as a musical, spun into a ballet, sung as an opera, digitized into a computer game, reimagined in new novels, and, of course, dramatized in film, most recently in a garish blur by Baz Luhrmann that portrayed Nick recalling his experience from inside a mental hospital.
These efforts fail — dully or hilariously — because once Fitzgerald’s poetic language has been stripped away, “The Great Gatsby” is just a silly story about a misfit obsessed with a gangster who’s stalking his cousin. But seduced by the book’s enduring fame, writers and producers keep reanimating Frankensteinesque imitations of the Jazz Age masterpiece.
Crossing through that valley of ashes once again, we approach Stephanie Powell Watts’s debut novel with a mixture of wariness and dread. “No One Is Coming to Save Us” is billed as an African American version of “The Great Gatsby.” It doesn’t help that Christopher Scott Cherot’s movie “G” already attempted that color switch back in 2002. It helps even less to remember that some English professor caused a stir in 2000 by claiming that Jay Gatsby is actually a black man passing.
Surprise: Watts’s novel is unfairly freighted with this allusion to its distant, white ancestor. If you know Fitzgerald’s story intimately, it might be interesting, in some minor, academic way, to trace the lines of influence on her work, but in general that’s a distraction. Watts has written a sonorous, complex novel that’s entirely her own.
This modern-day story takes place in a North Carolina town ground down by factory closings. “So much has changed since we were just starting out,” Watts writes. “Without the factories there is little work to do. What a difference a few years can make. The jobs that everybody knew as the last resort or the safety net are the jobs nobody can get anymore.” That plural narrator, knowing and wry, is just one of the novel’s rich pleasures. Without yoking herself to some cumbersome Greek chorus, Watts has invented a communal voice that’s infinitely flexible, capable of surveying the whole depressed town or lingering tenderly in a grieving mother’s mind.
The central characters are members of an African American family who have remained in town, sustained on a thick diet of disappointment. Sylvia, the matriarch, has “spent her whole life tense and waiting for the worst thing to happen,” but it already has. Still married to a philandering man whom she despises, she’s convinced that she failed as a mother and a wife. The only hopeful moments of Sylvia’s life come during periodic phone calls from an incarcerated young man who first made contact by randomly dialing her house.
While Sylvia’s plight provides the novel’s disconsolate bass line, its mournful melody is sung by her daughter, Ava. With a good job at a local bank, Ava enjoys a rare degree of economic stability in this town, but years of trying to conceive a child have frayed her personality, and her own husband is no more faithful to her than her father is to Sylvia.
Into this sad family comes — or, rather, returns — JJ Ferguson. He was once a quiet misfit, dumped into the care of his grandmother after his own mother was murdered. As teenagers, he and Ava bonded over their shared vulnerability steeped in misery. Now, 15 years later, he’s a handsome, successful man — “I go by Jay now.” He’s building a beautiful house that sits above the town. “That JJ had loved Ava was obvious,” Watts writes. “That Sylvia loved JJ too, like a son, like Devon, her own son, was just as clear.” Soon enough, JJ drops by and confirms everyone’s suspicions about his intentions. And why not? Why shouldn’t he make Ava happy, rescue her from a dead marriage? Even give her a child?
Little happens in this novel in any traditional sense, but it seems constantly in motion because Watts is so captivating a writer. She’s unusually deft with dialogue: the self-pitying asides, intentional misunderstandings and veering tones of real conversation. And she’s no less effective when considering these characters alone, flowing seamlessly from one to another, plumbing their various levels of despair. She seems to know exactly how years of economic depression would ingrain habits of hopelessness. Sexual infidelities that once promised a surge of excitement have long since dribbled into puddles of shame. All of these men are weary; all of these women are exhausted. “Every person you see around here is walking around with a busted life story,” Watts writes. While they can look back at a past of extreme poverty and vicious racism, now they live in a static country, permanently broken, devoid even of the promise of progress.
We may want to see JJ as the Gatsbyesque hero who can sweep Ava away from this malaise, but the novel resists — even mocks — such meretricious romanticism. The characters in Watts’s novel are rooted to the exigencies of real lives; they’re not chiffon figures in Fitzgerald’s fantasy. Ava, at least, understands that love preserved in amber may be beautiful, but it can’t be made to breathe again. And nothing grounds this story so firmly as its exploration of the various agonies of motherhood. Sylvia is a woman suspended between grief and acceptance, unwilling to fully acknowledge her loss but determined not to slip into madness. Ava, meanwhile, suffers the constant abrasions of hope and anxiety as she struggles again and again to have a child, surrounded by people who seem to squander their fertility so casually.
All of this is conveyed in a prose style that renders the common language of casual speech into natural poetry, blending intimate conversation with the rhythms of gossip, town legend, even song lyrics. “There is more than one home for the seeker, for the hustler, for the grown-up looking for refuge,” Watts writes. “Haven’t we always done this trick? If you can’t get what you want, want something else.”
What Watts has done here is more captivating than another retread about the persistence of a crook’s dream. She’s created an indelible story about the substance of a woman’s life. Her characters aren’t allowed to smash up things and let other people clean up the mess they have made — or get shot down and ascend into national mythology. They needn’t reach out their arms any farther. They’re already running as fast as they can.
Ron Charles is the host of The Totally Hip Video Book Review.
By Stephanie Powell Watts
Ecco. 371 pp. $26.99