By Nathan Hill
For those who like their fiction long and winding, filled with propulsive twists and revelations, and interspersed with witty and often perceptive observations on human behavior and cultural lunacy, Nathan Hill’s debut delivers just the right balance. It is at times funny, serious, and poignant, sometimes all simultaneously, even, when venturing into the political realm, when it is extremely cynical, though truthful, too. Ultimately, you’ll find it, at its heart, a novel of discovery, particularly of self-discovery, as the main characters Samuel and Faye, as well as a stellar cast of supporting characters, chief among them Bishop, Bethany, and Pwnage, as all must come to grips with their life decisions and the consequences engendered by them, leaving Periwinkle as the sole emotionally and intellectually stagnant character operating as the cynical stripper of civilization’s glossy varnish.
The story is fairly simple: young Samuel Andersen-Anderson labors as an unhappy literature prof in a small average college teaching students who see little value or relevance in what he has to offer. Really, as Laura Pottsdam, straight A student due to her excellent cheating skills, wonders how writing a paper on Hamlet will help her get a great marketing communications job. It’s a paper she has plagiarized, refuses to rewrite, and that affords Samuel, and readers, pages of hilarious arguments and rationales as to why she should either receive an A on her stolen submission or be excused entirely from the assignment. Readers will find the novel packed cheek to jowl with flights of observation and commentary like this on the problems and oddities of modern American life. Poor Samuel seeks refuge in online gaming, where he plays with Pwnage, a master gamer and the epitome of obsessive self-destructive behavior.
Samuel’s life changes when publisher Periwinkle calls him about his mother Faye who has been arrested for assault and battery on cornpone presidential aspirant Sheldon Packer. Once Samuel was a promising emerging writer whom Periwinkle had issued a lucrative advance against a first novel, one that years later, Samuel has yet to deliver, or even begin. Periwinkle offers to absolve him of his considerable debt simply by writing a tell-all, a damning book about his mother. Samuel, who knows little or nothing about her, agrees, on the condition he be given time to do research. Thus, he sets off to discover why his mother walked out on him and his father, a frozen-food salesman. It proves to be both a complicated and revelatory tale that romps through the Fifties, the Sixties, into present post-recession America.
This takes Samuel and readers back into Faye’s life in Iowa, where Hill makes some keen observations about life in the Decade of Conformity, the most jarring for modern types Home Economics class. You’ll wonder why anyone, and certainly why any woman, would ever want to regress back to those times. Later, her life in Chicago during the 1968 riotous Democratic convention does a good job of putting readers in the moment, while also illustrating the cynicism and hypocrisy of the whole affair, as well as political and protest life in general.
Samuel, deserted as he was at eleven, finds friendship and solace when Bishop Fall befriends him and introduces him to a wealthier section of town, but more profoundly, to his twin sister Bethany. A child musical prodigy, a vision of unnatural poise and beauty, she captures Samuel’s heart for a lifetime. Bishop, Bethany, and Samuel’s relationship grows into experiences that bind them perpetually and weave through the pages of the novel to the very last words. These moments with these characters represent the finest in the novel, particularly in terms of poignancy.
Because The Nix is such as long and sprawling novel, it would be easy to go on and on about the characters, the times, and commentary on contemporary life, all of which are best left for discovery by the reader. Suffice it say that most will find this among their best reading experiences of the year, with the only flaw being that Hill perhaps lingers a bit too long over some matters, especially in Chicago and toward the end.
On a final note, to provide you with a little taste, fast-forward to the end, when Samuel again encounters Periwinkle, now an all-purpose consultant, or perhaps oracle. Periwinkle educates Samuel on the heart of modern angst, on the disquiet we feel, the emptiness, the compulsive need for a more that once gotten never satisfies. In this case, something as simple as a snack food, per Periwinkle, as an escape from the never ending melancholy that envelops you:
“You buy a missile-shaped chip! That’s the answer. What this ad does is admit that something you already deeply suspect and existentially fear: that consumerism is a failure and you will never find any meaning there no matter how much money you spend. So the great challenge for people like me is to convince people like you that the problem is not systemic. It’s not that snacks leave you feeling empty, it’s that you haven’t found the right snack yet. It’s not that politics are hopelessly bankrupt, it’s that you haven’t found the right politician yet. And this ad just comes right out and says it. I swear to god it’s like playing poker against someone who’s showing his cards and yet still bluffing by force of personality.”