The Great Lenore

  • J.M. Tohline
  • Atticus Books
  • 204 pp.

Reimagining a Great American Novel, a debut novelist conjures Gatsby and his circle.

Reviewed by Susan Green

“When I first met Lenore, she’d been dead for four days.” This arresting sentence begins JM Tohline’s homage to The Great Gatsby. It may not seem fair to compare a 26-year-old’s first published book with what many believe is the Great American Novel. But, as his title makes clear, Tohline invites the comparison. His plot is a contemporary Gatsby: an ambitious self-made man romances a beautiful upper-class girl, abandons her in order to make his fortune and suffers everlasting regret; she in turn marries a drunken philanderer and inevitably leaves destruction in her wake.

In an intriguing plot twist, Tohline’s heroine, Lenore, misses a flight that crashes with no survivors, and then punishes her adulterous husband by concealing the fact of her survival. Lenore plans to attend her own funeral to observe the putative widower’s behavior. She does, however, inform her one-time lover of the ruse.

Like James Gatz/Jay Gatsby, Jez Tagsam first appears as “a young man, hair placed impeccably, dressed like a 1920s businessman.” Jez transforms himself from a scholarship boy at a Northeast Oklahoma college to a debonair young sophisticate touring the Continent. While in London he meets the ravishing Lenore Watson and the two fall in love immediately. Lenore decides to attend Harvard and insists that Jez find a job in Boston so they can be together. After Jez locates a position in the multinational Montana Inc., he and Lenore live together in apparent bliss until Jez accepts a promotion that requires him to relocate to Europe. The affair does not survive the couple’s separation; Lenore ultimately marries Chas Montana, son of Jez’s boss and mentor.

Lenore’s romantic attachment to Jez remains the highlight of her life. Even after her marriage she is nostalgic for what she characterizes as “two like souls coming together and coexisting in harmonic perfection.” As a 17-year-old girl, she finds love all encompassing: “The tilt of the earth spun special for them. The day was perfect. Life was perfect.” Such self-absorption is not unusual in a teenager, but Lenore never seems to outgrow it. Thus, her effect on others is mystifying. All who encounter Lenore tout her magnificence: her two-timing husband, Chas, who sees her as uniquely insightful and understanding; Chas’s brother Maxwell, who gets along with her better than anyone else in his life; and of course Jez, who bitterly regrets his decision to leave her. None of the characters can explain exactly why Lenore is “great,” but all seem to feel her magnetism.

It is the story’s narrator who unlocks the mystery. Richard Parkland, like Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, is a character in whom everyone confides. Desperate to overcome writer’s block, Richard agrees to house-sit in a Nantucket mansion for the winter. In another echo of Gatsby, the mansion is next door to the Montana family’s summer home. Chas, Maxwell and Mr. Montana ply Richard with liquor while rhapsodizing about Lenore’s singular virtues. Richard dutifully — drunkenly ― attends to the monologues; anything is better than staring at his blank computer screen.

When Richard finally meets Lenore, he, too, falls under her spell. Everything about her is magic:  her voice, her eyes, her personality. But Richard is the only one who understands the source of Lenore’s greatness: “Lenore was everything. She was anything you wanted her to be.” People love Lenore because she embodies their fantasies. Ironically, just as she imagines that the earth’s orbit alters with her feelings, others project their emotions entirely onto her. Lenore is the more grandiose, but her acolytes are similarly self-centered.

The characters’ narcissism mirrors the personalities found in Fitzgerald’s novel. Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Jordan — all are concerned almost exclusively with themselves. Gatsby idealizes Daisy just as Jez puts Lenore on a pedestal. The parallels continue: Richard romances Cecelia, the girl next door; Nick Carraway pursues Daisy’s friend Jordan. Chas’s mistress, Lily, is married to a man named Wilson; Tom Buchanan’s paramour is Myrtle Wilson. Without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that Lenore’s denouement does not stray far from Gatsby.

As a devotee of American literature, I share Tohline’s admiration for the genre. He chooses as an epigraph the first stanza of Poe’s Lenore, which, fittingly, is a paean to a girl who dies young. His high regard for Hemingway is apparent in his prose — not to mention the name of his cat, which he obligingly reveals is “The Old Man and the Sea.” Reimagining famous works of literature is a time-honored tradition: Sophocles, Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf are just a few of the authors whose works have been reshaped; James Joyce, Jean Rhys and Geraldine Brooks are three of the many writers who reworked great stories to wide acclaim. JM Tohline’s tribute puts him in excellent company. Now that he has retold Fitzgerald’s story, I look forward to the day he tells his own.

Susan Green earned her A.B. in the history and literature of America. She holds The Great Gatsby in high esteem but believes that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the Great American Novel.

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