2016’s Finest: ‘The Nix’ by Nathan Hill

 

I wrote yesterday about breaking out of a reading rut, and after devouring the 620-page behemoth The Nix in a matter of two days, I think I can safely say the curse has been lifted. The ultimate measure of a book’s quality is, in my opinion, when you get close to the end and begin to stall because you don’t want it to be finished. Such was the case with Nathan Hill’s debut novel.

When someone asked me to describe the plot, I began confidently and realized it would be impossible to summarize in a matter of sentences. It is one of those novels that features characters whose lives seem entirely disconnected, until you find out what binds them—at which point you feel foolish for not making the connection yourself.

Though each character is instrumental to the story, our two protagonists are Samuel Andersen-Andresen, a young literary talent turned small-town college professor with an embarrassing addiction to an internet game called Elfscape, and Faye Andresen, the mother who abandoned him at age eleven, whom he hasn’t seen hide nor hair of until she makes national news for attacking (read: throwing pebbles at) Sheldon Packer, the Republican Governor of Wyoming and GOP frontrunner for the Presidential nomination.

When Samuel’s publisher calls to bear the bad news that, due to his failure to deliver on the book contract he received a decade ago, the publishing house plans to sue him, he is desperate to prove he can conjure up a book in a matter of a couple months. His agent is doubtful—until he reveals that his mother is “the Packer Attacker”—at which point he agrees to write an exposé on her to save the contract.

Given that his mother abandoned him at the age of eleven, Samuel has quite a bit of work to do, and sets out finding everyone with connections to his mother—and himself as a child—in hopes of filling the significant holes in his story. The book jumps from 1968, the year Faye abandoned her modest Midwest hometown for college in the big city of Chicago; to 1988, the year she left Samuel and his father; to late summer 2011, the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. All the usual suspects in a family ties are present; from Faye’s absent father, to the husband she left, to her college co-eds, but what is most captivating about the book is the addition of characters less creative authors might never think to include. From a reclusive gamer Samuel knows from his hours spent on Elfscape to an entitled millennial college student who considers it her “right” to cheat, these minor characters set The Nix apart from books of its ilk and make the initially intimidating 620-page length seem almost too short.

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