The Nix by Nathan Hill (Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95, 640 pages)
In an age when the attention span for some people extends no longer than a 140-character tweet, I realize I’ve set myself a daunting task in trying to persuade many readers to invest their time in consuming a novel of more than 600 pages. Trust me. Nathan Hill’s incredibly tender and wildly funny debut novel, The Nix, is worth every minute of that time and more.
Offering something for everyone – domestic drama, political intrigue and violence, fantasy, brutal reality, pathos and humor – Hill’s novel packs a roiling universe of thought and feeling into its pages. His spectacular achievement is a persuasive argument for why, even when it seems life in America couldn’t get any weirder, great novels still surpass any art form at illuminating that weirdness.
The Nix occupies the same family tree as the novels of John Irving, who’s praised Hill as “the best new writer of fiction in America.” At its heart, like Irving’s The World According to Garp, it’s grounded in the relationship of mother and son, a tale of abandonment and the hunger for reconciliation. When Faye Andresen-Anderson walks out on her husband and 11-year-old Samuel one morning in 1988, comforting the boy with the words, “Don’t be scared,” she sets him on a quest that will consume nearly the next quarter-century of his life.
The Nix’s impressive edifice is constructed of sturdy novella-like building blocks, shifting from the moment of Faye’s departure back to 1968 and forward to 2011. In that year, Faye is arrested for throwing a handful of rocks at former Wyoming governor and right-wing presidential candidate Sheldon Packer. The instant notoriety the “Packer Attacker” achieves from that impulsive assault reveals her whereabouts to Samuel for the first time since her abrupt flight.
Samuel, a blocked novelist and unenthusiastic literature professor at an undistinguished suburban Chicago university, is about to be sued to refund his publisher’s advance, until he seizes the opportunity to write an unflattering biography of his now-infamous mother. That assignment ignites a search to uncover her past – the novel’s vibrant heart – and reconstruct their mutual lost history, one that reveals the terrible truth of his mother’s admonition, “The things you love the most will one day hurt you the most.”
In the often painful investigation, Samuel revisits his infatuation with Bethany Fall, a violin prodigy, and his dangerous friendship with her troubled twin brother Bishop, a sixth-grade classmate whose life is damaged by childhood abuse. Those relationships shape him as profoundly as his mother’s departure and offer sad proof of her observation that “every memory is really a scar.”
There’s an equally sensitive rendering of Faye’s life, from her childhood in Iowa as the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant father who enacted his own form of flight (and introduced her to the “house spirit” that provides the novel’s title) to her brief college experience in Chicago and life-altering encounter with political activism there.
Faye’s activism climaxes in the antiwar protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, whose descent into chaos, initiated by the police, sealed the presidential election for Richard Nixon. Hill’s vivid portrait of that terrifying night masterfully shifts perspectives from fictional characters, like Faye and a police officer named Charlie Brown, whose story intertwines with hers forever, to real-life figures like Walter Cronkite, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and the poet Allen Ginsberg. His depiction of a cycle of political protest that began in that era comes full circle in the book’s final chapter with a glimpse of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York in 2011, a faint echo of the Chicago chaos.
Hill is also a keen observer of many of the stranger outposts of contemporary American life, not least in his portrait of Samuel’s obsession with a multiplayer roleplaying game, World of Elfscape. In that alternative universe, he’s Dodger the Elven Thief, and the leader of his virtual band is a divorced, unemployed manchild named Pwange, who devotes himself to the game with a self-destructive passion.
And although the novel (which took more than 10 years to write) was finished well before the 2016 election campaign reached its dramatic conclusion, there’s an eerie foreshadowing of that contest and perhaps the years that lie ahead in these words of Samuel’s editor and publisher: “What’s true? What’s false? In case you haven’t noticed, the world has pretty much given up on the old Enlightenment idea of piecing together the truth based on observed data. Reality is too complicated and scary for that. Instead, it’s way easier to ignore all data that doesn’t fit your preconceptions and believe all data that does. I believe what I believe, and you believe what you believe, and we’ll agree to disagree. It’s liberal tolerance meets dark ages denialism. It’s very hip right now.”
It’s only possible here to hint at the depth of insight and genuine emotion that await you in The Nix. Go. Discover the enchantment of his novel for yourself. I envy you the pleasure of experiencing it for the first time.
Email Harvey Freedenberg at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @HarvF.