Many a novelist has used Homer’s “Odyssey” as the template for a sweeping story. Stephanie Powell Watts does something far more audacious and imaginative in her debut novel, “No One Is Coming to Save Us” — employing “The Great Gatsby” as the model for a melancholy love story set among African-Americans in an economically struggling little town in North Carolina.
And it works. Watts’ novel, although far from perfect, would stand on its own even without that inspiration, but knowing what she’s doing lends extra depth to some of her story’s more startling plot twists. It’s a brilliant, timely idea — demonstrating that a quintessentially American classic is just as effective with a largely black cast.
JJ Ferguson, who has been raised among violence and indifference in the mythical town of Pinewood, N.C., returns years after moving away, now wealthy as the result of mysterious real estate dealings. High on a hill above town, he’s building a grand house for himself — and for Ava, his long-ago high school sweetheart, who is now married to the faithless Henry. Ava, stubborn and ethereal, is obsessed with bearing a child, but is disappointed by miscarriage after miscarriage.
When JJ shows up to court her, Henry’s infidelity is revealed and the novel becomes tense with possibilities, none of them inviting. The story is largely told through the sensibilities of Ava’s mother, Sylvia, a portly, loving, anxious woman who has weathered her own share of heartbreak. “People get folded up in the creases of their lives,” Watts writes, and man, is that ever so.
There are a number of equally vivid minor characters, some of whom have shadow twins in “Gatsby,” some of whom don’t. There are other loose parallels to the classic — a dangerous body of water and a fatal crash, for instance.
The premise and plot are so clever that one forgives the novel’s main flaw — the sort of loosey-goosey writing one often sees in works by young writers. Watts’ characters’ dialogue is quite well done — so much so that we blanch with irritation at the paragraph or two of psychological explanation that seems to follow almost every conversation. Most of what Watts tells us in those passages we could figure out on our own from the characters’ words and actions.
There are also pages of beautiful writing, as in the chapter where Ava, pushing a shopping cart with a clunky wheel, runs into her husband’s lover in a Wal-Mart and realizes that the woman’s little boy looks exactly like her husband.
Watts, a native of rural North Carolina who teaches English at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., has done something marvelous here, demonstrating that the truths illuminated in a classic American novel are just as powerful for black Americans. Here’s hoping that her next novel is a story entirely her own.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
Nobody is Coming to Save Us
By: Stephanie Powell Watts
Publisher: Ecco, 371 pages, $26.99