Jay Gatsby is transported to contemporary North Carolina in Stephanie Powell Watts’s new book No One Is Coming to Save Us — but here, he’s J.J. Ferguson, a machinist who’s made his money from government and corporate contracts, and the company he seeks is not the demimonde but the precariously middle-class black community where he came of age.
Watts picks and chooses which elements of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story to keep (car accident, yes; wild parties, no). The looseness frees her to build a narrative that stands on its own terms. J.J.’s former flame Ava, now married and regretfully childless, is a clear stand-in for Daisy, but there’s no Nick Carraway narrator here. If anyone offers a similar inside-outside perspective on the romance, it’s Ava’s mother, Sylvia, a woman whose pain and disillusionment do not augur a happy ending.
Like Fitzgerald, Watts excels at physical descriptions that give texture to the world of the novel: a road curls “like a potato peel,” a fingernail overhangs “a dirty dust line … like the vein in shrimp.” She also knows a thing or two about heartache, a must for any Gatsby pastiche: “When you love somebody you decide what you can take and what will kill you and work backward from what will kill you,” one unlucky-in-love character explains. “It’s as simple as that.”
Though disjointed in places, the novel conjures the “Is that all there is?” mood of Gatsby to great effect. To call Watts “promising” would diminish her significant accomplishments, which include a Whiting Award and a Pushcart Prize for her short fiction. In the best possible way, this is the kind of book that makes a reader yearn for her next one.