There is nothing like a great novel about families to bring out the drama and dysfunction inherit within them. A lot of great novels use this conceit in concocting identifiable situations that mixes identifiable characters with ones that are very hard to like.
We get a great slice of this in The Nix, the extraordinarily deft debut novel by Nathan Hill.
“It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows; his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help. To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.”
The book is a drama between mother and son, one that adds politics and family mythology to the mix. But it contains some sharp humor, and at times almost satirical look at today, with jabs at Millennial’s and their inability to take personal responsibility, and our whole political system which has done away with facts, making true and false a relic of some mysterious past time. It often reminded me of John Irving, something that many reviewers noted (though Irving himself claimed this story reminded him of Charles Dickens –ironically something Irving is often compared too). Hill’s tale, released a few months before 2016’s most divided election, could prove what a genius the writer could be. His wry at time take on 2012 election, mirrored with the 1968 one, and you wonder how he could be so spot on.
So yes, The Nix delves into the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, which remains a huge historical moment in that town, one that reiterated the fact that the Windy City could be ruthless and mean. If you watch Youtube videos of that time period and watch what is happening in 2016, you see a striking similarity. You understand, as I’ve always have, that nothing in politics changes, the faces, the themes, the schisms designed to alienate of America have always been there (and I’ll argue since the dawn of this nation 240 years ago).
But while that’s fun and depressing to realize, The Nix is not about politics as a whole. Samuel’s mother Faye is not much of a sympathetic character, even as her history unwinds and you learn more about her past. Like many of us, she is caught in an odd time of life, coming of age in the turbulent 1960s, a time that effectively divided America and continues to do so. Her issues are complex and yet simple, and as the book comes along, you are forced as a reader to see her and have empathy or dislike her for never being a mother one expects she should be.
The book abounds with a strong prose of a writer who’s been publishing for years, and it’s astounding to me to think that Nathan Hill accomplished a rarity today: a fully realized Great American Novel™ on the first try. This book towers over last year’s most touted new book by a first time writer, City of Fire, and yet has not gotten the press (I think it) deserves.
And much like City of Fire, we're getting a limited TV series version of The Nix in the near future, though why they don't call is a miniseries is beyond me. New minds, fresh ideas some might say. But those ideas are never new, just repackaged.