I’ve long held to the completely unsupported notion that a protagonist is simpler to write than a truly memorable supporting character. Sometimes just a silhouette — created with a few slashes of the pen, a few charismatic adjectives — seems the more unlikely accomplishment, born out of some surplus wit and energy, some surfeit of love for a fictional world that expresses itself in the desire to animate even its most minor participants.
F. Scott Fitzgerald excelled at this sort of character. Few can write a more vivid neighbor, train conductor or, more usually, bartender. Take Owl Eyes (or so he’s called, for his large spectacles), one of the many partygoers at Gatsby’s mansion. When we first meet him, he has wandered into the library and doesn’t seem able to escape — he stands paralyzed, staring at the books in inebriated admiration.
I wonder if we’re all Owl Eyes now. In the century or so since “The Great Gatsby” was published, we have been lost in Gatsby’s house, immured in a never-ending revival.
This revival will only get more crowded when the novel’s copyright expires as the calendar turns to 2021. January will see the publication of a new edition from Modern Library, with an introduction by Wesley Morris, a critic at large at The New York Times, and another from Penguin, introduced by the novelist Min Jin Lee. That month also brings a prequel, “Nick,” by Michael Farris Smith.