Goofy, funny and full of literary in-jokes.
The Nick and Jake of the title are Nick Carraway (from The Great Gatsby) and Jake Barnes (from The Sun Also Rises), who, in 1953, strike up a correspondence and then a friendship. At the beginning of this epistolary novel, Nick has recently left his successful advertising agency in Chicago and idealistically taken a position at the State Department, while Jake is a crusty writer for the Herald Tribune in Paris. After being manhandled at the McCarthy hearings, a disillusioned Nick takes off for Europe, his marriage on the rocks and his relationship with his son, Alden, in shambles. Earlier in his life, Nick had written a novel, Trimalchio in West Egg, about a shady character named James Gatz, to some critical acclaim, and Jake encourages Nick to work on a second book. (In the Richards’ alternative universe Fitzgerald and Hemingway never existed.) The cast of characters here is enormous, and the letters weave the narrative in complicated patterns. We have redbaiter Roy Cohn appear as the nephew of Robert Cohn from Hemingway’s novel. Jake has a running romantic as well as epistolary connection to the recently transgendered Christine Jorgensen, who persuades Jake to undertake the same operation in Denmark. Allen Dulles tries to control political chaos erupting in Iran with the election of Premier Mohammed Mossadegh. Also making an appearance—at least through the correspondence provided by the Richards’ febrile imagination—are George H. W. Bush, Albert Camus, Irving Kristol, spiritual seeker Larry Darrell (from The Razor’s Edge) and Lady Brett Ashley, who goes to India, learns tantric sex and becomes the lover of Nick Carraway’s son, Alden.
Although occasionally almost too self-consciously witty, this is a rollicking good read.