The Nix – Nathan Hill.
My brother-in-reading Dave V. received two copies of this book over the holidays. He was generous enough to pass one of them my way. Quite the gesture, which I appreciate immensely!
This is a great book. It’s also one of those books that makes me mad, as it is Hill’s first full-length novel. How can people write something this brilliant on their first effort? I’ve tried a couple half-assed attempts to write lengthy stories over the past 10 years and the results have been thoroughly embarrassing. And this guy rips off something like this. Man…
Anyway, as I said, it’s really good. It is built on a mother-son relationship that broke in the late 1970s and was forced back together 30 years later by a series of crazy incidents. The biggest being the mother, Faye, threw handfuls of gravel in the face of a presidential candidate and became public enemy #1 in the political/culture wars that drive our media. Although son Samuel had not seen or talked to Faye since she walked out on the family when he was 11, he is contacted by her attorney in hopes that he will write a letter on her behalf for the judge in charge of the case.
That sets off a path of discovery for Samuel, who slowly pulls out the details of his mother’s life, back to her high school days in Iowa, through her first tumultuous month at college in Chicago, which coincided with the 1968 Democratic convention. We also learn about Samuel’s childhood, and a pair of powerful relationships that have haunted him deep into his adulthood. Eventually Faye hops on the path of discovery, traveling to Norway to discover the secrets of her father’s youth. The seeds for our own foibles and failures were often sewn long before our births.
There are stretches of brilliance here. Hill balances humor, absurdity, and profundity well. The current sections of the book correctly foresaw the ridiculousness of the Trump era. And I found his exploration of the reasons why and process through which people choose to isolate themselves from others interesting.
Great books should connect with and force you to consider your own life. The Nix certainly struck a chord with me. My family history is quite different than that of Samuel and Faye’s. But I was a child of separation in the 1970s and divorce in the early 1980s, so I do feel some common threads between my experience and the book. With both of my biological parents dead, that lends a bigger mystery to questions I never asked, either because I was too young or just wasn’t interested at the time. I don’t know, if my mom was still alive or if I had a better relationship with my dad, if I would ask some of the questions this book prompted. I could sympathize with many of the issues Samuel and Faye sought to answer, though.
The Nix is tremendous. It’s popular fiction with a healthy dollop of literary depth. It measures up nicely with books by Lethem, Franzen, Eggers, and Chabon that are in a similar stylistic pocket.