Nathan Hill’s whirling debut novel, “The Nix,” blasts off with an assault on Gov. Sheldon Packer, a fire-breathing, anti-immigrant presidential candidate who may remind you of a certain reality-TV star with size anxiety. A video clip shot by some modern-day Zapruder shows a middle-aged woman shouting, “You pig!” and throwing something at Packer, who, by the grace of God, survives. (The “weapon” was just a handful of gravel, but still!) In the breathless coverage that consumes the nation, the would-be assassin — “The Packer Attacker” — is quickly identified as a teaching assistant at an elementary school, which, the governor’s allies note, “shows how the radical liberal agenda has taken over public education.”
That splashy blend of violence and farce, hewing close to the shore of today’s tweet stream, is the first sign that we’re in the presence of a major new comic novelist. Hill, 40, spent a couple of decades in the wilderness of obscurity and rejection, but this week, his enormous book arrives as one of the stars of the fall season.
“The Nix” is set in motion by that video clip of the governor’s gravel gash. Everybody in the country watches it, except English professor Samuel Andresen-Anderson, who is too depressed about his job and too stressed about his finances to notice — until he gets a call from a lawyer and learns that the Packer Attacker is his long-lost mother. The lawyer wants Samuel to be a character witness, but Samuel’s publisher has a more lucrative if equally absurd idea: Investigate his mother’s radical past and write a scathing exposé of Gov. Packer’s assailant.
This seems like a great opening to a political satire — the cable news lunacy is particularly spot-on — but Hill has something broader in mind for his rapacious novel, which roves from 2011 to the 1950s, from America to Norway, and from our world to the cyber realm of “Elfscape.” Hill spent a quarter of his life working on “The Nix,” and it shows. He’s the Will Rogers of narrators: He’s never met a subject he didn’t like. In a recent interview, he confessed that his novel “became the repository for just about every good idea I had — everything out in the world that I found interesting or curious or infuriating.” He even compared the book to a magical handbag in “Harry Potter” that can accommodate anything Hermione wants to stuff inside it.
Authors are rarely so candid — or correct — about their own work. “The Nix” presents that strain of gigantism unique to debut novelists who fear this will be their only shot. The book practically tears off its own binding in its desperation to contain every aside, joke, riff and detour. (Appropriately, Samuel is a great fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and there’s one embedded in a section of “The Nix.”) It’s customary with these huge, super-hyped novels for someone involved to claim, defensively, that hundreds of pages were sacrificed during the editorial process — I’m looking at you, “City on Fire” — but hundreds more pages could have been sliced away from “The Nix.”
And yet there’s no denying what a brilliant, endearing writer Hill is. If there’s an excess of “The Nix,” it’s an excess of wily storytelling. Beneath the book’s highly improbable, overarching plot about an attack on a presidential candidate and a son’s search for his mother, you’ll find an inexhaustible collection of smart, witty scenes.
Samuel’s childhood friendship with a pair of entrancing twins — reckless Bishop and beautiful Bethany — is fantastically told, a reminder of the early, accidental encounters that misdirect our lives. In a haunting narration that mingles young Samuel’s naivete and adult Samuel’s regret, we watch as the siblings draw him away from his own joyless home into escapades exciting and sinister.
As much as Samuel once loved his mother, Faye, we see that she was an unhappy woman, trapped in a conventional life she never wanted. Before abandoning Samuel, she frightens him with tales of the nix, a Norwegian ghost that carries little children away. But if there’s a spirit haunting this novel, it’s John Irving, whose own stories about childhood misadventures and missing parents clearly inspired the author.
Moving further back in time, the chapters set in 1968 thrum with the grind and groove of the Age of Aquarius. There, we see college-age Faye leaving her repressive home in Iowa for the wilds of Chicago just before the Democratic Convention. In this electric fusing of fictional characters and historical figures, Hill lights that era ablaze. While Faye struggles to understand what she wants, the riots erupt, the police attack, Allen Ginsberg chants and Walter Cronkite despairs. It’s a scene both nostalgic and prescient, one that traces the roots of our current political morass and the media that feed off it.
And a longer subplot about a student in Samuel’s English class demonstrates just what a sharply funny writer Hill can be. Caught plagiarizing a paper, Laura Pottsdam mounts an indignant defense that begins with denial and ends with accusing Samuel of triggering “negative feelings of stress and vulnerability.” Raised in a slimy embrace of self-righteous affirmations, Laura is every professor’s nightmare, a monster of entitlement. I wouldn’t have thought there was any room left for new academic satire, but Hill’s take on student empowerment and administrative spinelessness graduates magna cum laude.
Other detours, though, are less engaging. An extensive side story about a man addicted to online gaming feels Pac-Man-fresh. And its climax, a single sentence that gasps on for 10-pages, sounds like a stunt that I’ve endured too many times before. (Some wag on Twitter called such displays of authorial bravado “the drum solo of literature.”)
But no matter where you are in this novel, comic touches jump out: the cringe-inducing hygiene lesson in a 1950s home-ec class; the grotesque architecture of the 1960s college campus; the modern-day iFeel app that allows “friends” to “Autocare.” In fact, with its cascade of humor, “The Nix” sometimes reads like an anthology of irresistible sketches. And there are plenty of self-referential jokes acknowledging that sprawl, as when Samuel’s editor complains, “In today’s market, most readers want books with accessible, linear narratives that rely on big concepts and easy life lessons.”
Not here, folks! “The Nix” darts erratically from poignant realism to deadpan looniness. Hill is a sharp social observer, hyper-alert to the absurdities of modern life, but if there are any life lessons, they’re uncomfortable ones about the way a son and his mother have been crippled by history and their own longing. The best wisdom Faye can offer is to warn Samuel that “the things you love the most can hurt you the most.”
So, given this capacious handbag stuffed with “everything out in the world,” what’s the prognosis for “The Nix”?
Cutting awfully close to the bone, Samuel’s editor predicts, “It’s going to be like six hundred pages and ten people will read it.” But that seems far too pessimistic for such a mountain of cleverness. As surely as Samuel finds his mother, the right readers will find this novel. And they’ll be dazzled.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Nathan Hill
Knopf. 620 pp. $27.95