First novels can often be a bit of a crap-shoot. Sometimes you get staggering works that were clearly being tinkered with for the author’s whole life, and come off as works of genius, and other times you can tell that things aren’t quite polished yet, but hopefully there’s some sign of talent that could be cultivated in the future. The later is more common, and it’s always a joy to find one of the former. Which I have. I first heard about the Nix when it was being featured on basically every “Best Novels of 2016” list I came across, and I figured that this was something worth checking out. Plus, not to be a cliche, but that cover is very intriguing to me, and certainly helped spur me onto checking this novel out. And I’m very glad I did, because this is a terrific novel, and one that will force me to eagerly await any future projects from Nathan Hill, because if he can sustain this level of craft, he’ll be destined for greatness. Because anyone who can spin this many plates, make it all come together and seem worthwhile, while also creating a fully realized world has some serious talent.
At it’s heart, the Nix is the story of a mother and a son. And it all pivots around one crucial moment in their life, when Faye Andreson-Anderson abandoned her husband and adolescent son Samuel. This exact moment is barely examined in the novel, but it’s what everything before it lead to, and what everything after caused. A large portion of the novel is told in the semi-present of 2011, when Samuel Anderson is an English professor at a small college, trying to distract himself from his failure of a life, when he’s suddenly brought back into his mother’s life. Which happens when Faye is caught on camera attacking an ultra-conservative presidential candidate, and arrested for assault. Her lawyers hope that Samuel will be able to provide some character testimony to show the court that Faye isn’t a monster, and hopefully aid her sentencing. However, Samuel still feels quite a bit of resentment for the mother he hasn’t seen since he was a boy, so he instead starts working against his mother, trying to get enough information about her past to write a tell-all book about her, riding on the coat-tails of her accidental fame.
But when Samuel begins digging into his mother’s life, trying to figure out what exactly it was that spurred her to abandon her family, and trying to make sense of the fact that she was apparently involved in the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago, a detail of her life he’d never known and can barely believe. And that starts Samuel down a rabbit hole that eventually gives us plenty of flashbacks to Faye’s younger life. We learn that Faye grew up in rural Iowa, being told that her life had to be just like everyone else’s, and that her thoughts and opinions didn’t matter. So she ran away to Chicago to go to a liberal college, where she got swept up in the counter-culture of the time, and was eventually thrown directly into the protests, getting involved in the riots and police brutality that was spawned by them. This brief taste of freedom terrified Faye, and she ended up going back to Iowa, marrying Samuel’s father, and trying to live the life that was told she was supposed to, until she couldn’t take it anymore, and had to split. Samuel learns the truth about his mother, she learns what kind of man he’s become, and the two have to reconcile what’s going to happen from there. Along the way we also learn about a depressive gamer who is friends with Samuel and spends all of his time playing a World of Warcraft-esque video game, a slacker student that’s trying to destroy Samuel’s career, the lives of a pair of twins that Samuel knew when he was a kid who became his best friend and his greatest love. These stories seem superfluous on the surface, but they end up contributing to the rich tapestry that Hill is crafting, and end up feeling very necessary to the novel.
I really loved this book. Basically from the get-go I was hooked, finding myself drawn in by Hill’s writing style, character choices, and dialogue. It was a fascinating book that jetted around several different time-periods, featured dozens of actualized characters, and a fully lived-in world. Which is no easy feat. It’s kind of stunning that this is Hill’s first novel, because it has a level of craft that’s usually reserved for more prolific novelists. And naturals. Which is what we appear to have in Hill. Which does give me some slight pause, mainly in fear that we may have an Infinite Jest on our hands, a towering achievement that took Hill ten years to write, and which he may never top. Your first novel tends to be something you’ve been working on your whole life, and encompasses basically all of your creativity. Hopefully the well isn’t dry. Especially because this novel feels so deeply personal, to the point that by the end I was second-guessing myself over the fact that this may have been mostly true to life, and basically auto-biographical.
But the thing that really was interesting about this novel to me, and the theme that stuck with me the most, was how it looked at parenthood. I am not a parent yet, but it’s one of those universal themes that come up in art, and something that is pretty hard not to be familiar with. As the novel begins you assume that this is going to just be a book full of mommy-issues, following Samuel as he reconciles with the fact that his mother wasn’t very caring, and who eventually abandoned him. I’m sure the loss of a parent, especially a voluntary one, is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a person, and an event that’s rife with dramatic potential. But the novel didn’t end up being a hatchet-job on Faye. Instead, we got a peak into her own life, and saw that her parents weren’t exactly caring and loving either. Faye had a domineering father who was never satisfied with her, and who belittled her at every turn. And it’s almost certain that Faye’s father didn’t have a stellar father either. Because parenthood is a cycle. No one is perfect, and if you have any problems with the way your parents raised you, you can almost certainly find out about their childhood and figure out why it was that way. No one really knows what they’re doing, they carry their own baggage from their childhoods, and they’re just trying to do a better job than their parents did. And that cycle of parenthood, and the effects that your whole familial history can have on your own development, is what took this already terrific book and made it essential reading for me. The Nix is a spectacular novel, and one that I hope everyone will give a chance. And I look forward to what Nathan Hill has up his sleeve next.
The Nix was written by Nathan Hill and published by Random House, 2016.