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The Nix, Nathan Hill, Alfred A Knopf, 2016, 620 pp
In an interview with Nathan Hill, he talks about how he spent years trying to become a novelist by writing what he thought publishers would buy and worked himself into a defeatist state of mind. Finally he got a job teaching writing and used his spare time to write what he wanted to say. The result was The Nix.
The protagonist, Samuel Andresson-Anderson, is then somewhat of an autobiographical character, a not uncommon circumstance in a first novel. I found him to be a sympathetic character reminiscent of fellows in books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Adrift in a sea of losses (his mother, his best friend, his one true love) he loses himself in on-line gaming as he struggles/procrastinates in writing a novel, long overdue, the huge advance he'd received long spent. Then his long lost mother resurfaces.
The structure of this novel is unwieldy and certain sections could be called over-written. By the time I finished reading all 620 pages, I forgave Nathan Hill everything. He wrote the story of a family that is littered with the universal detritus of failures, cowardice, love, bad communication, terrible parenting, immigration, myths and ghosts.
Somehow, and somewhat ungracefully, he stuffed all of this into what is either a sprawling mess or a brilliant synthesis of American life over the past century. Samuel's grandfather ran away from a hopeless future in Norway, landing in a mid-western American town with a job for a company that produced chemical weapons of mass destruction. He brought with him the Nix, a piece of Norwegian folklore about an evil trickster who steals whatever you love most and breaks your heart.
He raised his daughter Faye on stories of the Nix, leaving her in a state of personality disintegration. She escaped to Chicago in 1968 and got involved with the protests at the Democratic National Convention. Though she eventually returned home and married her high school sweetheart, she was more traumatized than ever. She left Samuel and his father when her son was a boy, disappearing completely. As she enters Samuel's life again decades later, she has been accused of a sordid crime committed in Chicago during the demonstrations.
As in the common current technique of novel writing with the story moving back and forth in time, the mysteries and losses of Samuel's life are revealed to both Samuel and the reader. The result is a heart wrenching story about how we make sense of our parents' actions and the possibility of reconciliation after deep misunderstanding and hurt. Along the way we also get to relive a social history that brings us up to where we are today.
The Nix is a long read that alternates between action and introspection. It won't please everyone but it was a bestseller last fall, has had glowing reviews and 4+ stars on Goodreads and Amazon. I loved it.
(The Nix is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)