THE NIX, by Nathan Hill. Alfred A. Knopf, 625 pp., $27.95.
The pain of losing your mother during childhood is nearly impossible to get over. The wound never heals completely. I know this truth from experience. But I swear you don’t have to have suffered this elemental loss to appreciate Nathan Hill’s great sprawling feast of a first novel. “The Nix” will make anyone comprehend that endless, hopeless ache, and a whole lot more.
One day in 1988, without any explanation, Faye Anderson tells her 11-year-old son, Samuel, that she’s leaving. She never returns. She forsakes her only child, her husband, Henry, and the Chicago suburbs she has come to loathe, disappearing like an evil spirit into the mists.
By 2011, Sam is an assistant professor of English at a third-rate college in Chicago, enduring students who would rather text and sext than grapple with Shakespeare. Ten years earlier he had written an autobiographical short story that earned him critical acclaim and a fat contract for a novel. Ashamed for having written nothing since, still brooding over his mother’s abandonment, he buries himself in the alternate reality of video games.
Soon enough, history’s tidal pull grabs him and won’t let go. A right-wing politician running for the presidency is pelted with stones in a Chicago park, a woman is indicted for the attack, and lawyer Simon Rogers informs Sam that this white-haired radical is his mother. Meanwhile, Sam’s agent, Guy Periwinkle, sensing bestseller material, says Sam won’t have to pay back his advance if he writes a savage tell-all exposing his mother.
What’s a young man, cursed by such conflicting loyalties to do? And who is his mother, really?
To answer these questions, Hill sweeps back and forth between the pivotal years of 2011, 1988 and 1968. In doing so, he packs “The Nix” with cultural commentary that manages to be both darkly satirical and uproariously funny. While wildly original, Hill is clearly the spawn of Thomas Pynchon and Stanley Elkin. He’s Jonathan Franzen wearing a smile for a change.
Hill’s targets may be familiar, but his aim is unerring. The opportunistic Periwinkle rebrands book publishing as “multimodal cross-platform synergy.” Rogers’ robotic language reminds us of Mr. Bumble’s declaration, in “Oliver Twist,” that “the law is a ass.” Mindlessness was just as pervasive among ’60s radicals, Hill shows, as it is among today’s social media-fixated teens. Fast-food scarfers may be sneer-worthy, but health-foodies can be self-righteous snobs.
But it’s inventive storytelling rather than opinion that makes this long novel seem shorter than it is. Hill creates an intricate plot that rarely falters. (One such occasion is an evocation of video game addiction, constructed of a single, pages-long, run-on sentence that produces the numbness Hill clearly intended. Whew!)
The book’s timeless gravitas springs from the heartbreak of the severed mother-son bond. What does it mean to wonder for years if Faye is alive or dead? Sam’s short story had been “a one-way communication” to his mother, “like a prayer.” Her continued absence remains a sharp presence, “a splinter he could not remove.”
After his mother’s departure in 1988, a lonely Sam befriends Bishop Fall, a scamp of a neighbor who’s as much of a bad boy as Sam is good. Bishop’s twin sister, Bethany, a violin prodigy, will grow into the unattainable woman in Sam’s life, yet another beloved female hauntingly ever-present by her absence.
As Hill doubles back to Faye’s early life in small-town Iowa with a taciturn, brooding Norwegian-immigrant father, Frank Andresen, we discover that her relationship with this man she could never please was as troubled as hers is with Sam. Frank’s bewildering legacy: a Norwegian fairy tale about the Nix, a beautiful white horse that entices children to climb aboard before it dives off a cliff into the sea, drowning everyone. The things you love the most, you see, one day will hurt you the most.
Hill writes with an astonishingly sure hand for a young author. He burrows deep inside the heads of old people and young, soldiers and protesters, men and women. He uses figurative language with ease, making a rotund school principal look like “an egg standing on toothpicks.” Yet the novel’s most bravura prose, a gripping account of cops clubbing demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, is nearly devoid of metaphor.
The shape-shifting Faye may be a Nix for her son, but Hill is savvy enough to know and Sam will learn — that she’s also so much more. As for Hill, let’s just call him the real thing.