Friday, October 7, 2016

The Nix by Nathan Hill

In Norwegian folklore a Nix is a shapeshifting spirit that lures the unsuspecting to a watery death,. Sometimes appearing as a white horse it will enchant a child onto it's back then plunge into the water, drowning it's rider. Faye tells the story to her son Samuel; the lesson, Faye explains, is that "the things you love the most will some day hurt you the worst."

I was eager to read The Nix by Nathan Hill. Luckily, my local librarian let me know a copy was languishing on the new book shelf for five whole days, which was slaying her, just waiting for me to come in and take it home.

I set aside everything else to spend the weekend reading it. I can't wait to read it again.

Hill has given us a book with great characters, a book with humor and heart, a wise recreation of the world Boomers grew up in, an insightful consideration of the reality of young people today, and with razor sharp exactness, considers the American way of life, politics, inter-family relationships, and ultimately, the nature of truth. Plus for all the terrible things that go wrong in Samuel and Faye's lives, it has a happy ending.

It's about as ambitious a novel as its gets. Perhaps it is the Great American Novel of the decade.


"When Samuel was a child reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, he'd keep a bookmark at the spot of a very hard decision, so that if the story turned out poorly, he could go back and try again. More than anything he wants life to behave this way."

Samuel is treading water in a sad job, with a history of failure, seeking escape through online role playing games. Until he gets a call from a lawyer representing the mother who abandoned him 20 years previous. Faye has been arrested as a terrorist after throwing gravel at a politician so awful he makes our current candidates look stellar. Samuel uses the opportunity to discover why Faye abandoned him. The pivitol moment that defined Faye's life was the 1968 Democratic Convention and the student protests that ended in police brutality.

1968. I watched the convention with my Mom, learning (finally, at age 16) how to blow bubbles with bubble gum. It had been a brutal spring, with the death of a boy at school, the photographer for the school paper and yearbook, dead of carbon monoxide poison from sitting in a running car in the family garage. Then there were the murders of Rev. King and Robert Kennedy. I was feeling overwhelmed, disillusioned, angry, and depressed, longing for days of innocence when I still believed in universal goodness (in other words, the year before). Plus, the guy I'd had a crush on for two years still pretended I wasn't there, looking through me as if I were a ghost. The spring and summer of 1968 have gone down in my mind as some of the worst days of my life.

In the novel, Faye grows up with a father who insists on mediocrity and humility. She develops panic attacks and a self-limiting perfectionism. Her boyfriend Henry freaks out when Faye steps out of the proscribed--and very Victorian-- ideal of womanhood. She escapes to a Chicago college, seeking a bigger life than what others have planned for her: contorting herself into the American housewife, the staid lover, a conformist to the lowest common denominator. The house nisse she'd encountered as a girl in her father's basement warned her that misfortune had been heaped on her father's head, and follows down generations. In Chicago, Faye falls into a series of unfortunate events that destroy her hopes and sends her back to the boy waiting for her--and a life she never wanted.

Samuel's quest for the mother brings understanding and empathy, and ultimately inspires him to offer the greatest sacrifice of love: letting his mother go again.

I will be buying a copy of this novel, just so I can underline and note my favorite parts. The character's journeys of self-realization offers pithy insights:

"What Faye won't understand and may never understand is that there is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many other true ones." 


"What's true? What's false? In case you haven't noticed, the world has pretty much given up on the old Enlightenment idea of piecing together the truth based on observed data. Reality is too complicated and scary for that. Instead, it's way easier to ignore all the data that doesn't fit your preconceptions and believe all the data that does."


"Faye's opinion is that sometimes a crisis is not really a crisis at all--just a new beginning. Because one thing she's learned through all this is, that if a new beginning is really new, it will feel like a crisis. Any real change should make you feel, at first, afraid. If you're not afraid of it, then it's not real change."
Believe the hype. This first novel is a must-read.

The Nix
Nathan Hill
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-1-101-94661-9

Read about Nathan Hill's journey to writing of The Nix at:
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/27/books/nathan-hill-the-nix.html