The Nix: A Novel by Nathan Hill (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 640 pp)

Born in Iowa, Nathan Hill earned his BA in English from the University of Iowa and his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, was a finalist for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction from the Los Angeles Times. Hill’s writing has been published in The Iowa Review, Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Denver Quarterly, and Fiction. Hill is an Associate Professor of English at the University of St. Thomas and lives in Naples, Florida.

History Written through Familial Relationship

That person is someone’s daughter. The phrase often emerges in conversation where one party hopes to place moral weight on another, to stop viewing the person as instrumental to the needs and desire of another. Instead, to remember the intrinsic value of humanity. This person at some point needed to finish the night in his parent’s bed. That person slept with a stuffed animal until he was in college. This person still wants his mother to kiss him on the forehead before he goes to sleep.

In the community, the marketplace, competitive society at large, we write off the human elements of other people. We can’t compete in business if we see the competition as a fully formed human being, with fears, joys, and stress. The President represents an object of critique or praise. The sports star operates out of pure function. Praise for success and derision for failure. But we all have family, whether near or far, intimate or strained.

Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, exhibits a broad scope spanning decade, with the intention of channeling this history through the relationship of a mother and a son.

The Narrative Framework Upon Which a Character Study Begins

Broadly speaking, the narrative orbits around a political event. A protestor observes a presidential candidate walking through a park in Chicago and decides to take matters into her own hands, hurling gravel at the governor.

“At the end of his one term as governor, he declared he was not running for reelection in order to focus on national priorities, and the media naturally took this to mean he was running for president. He perfected a sort of preacher-slash-cowboy pathos and an anti-elitist populism and found a receptive audience especially among blue-collar white conservatives put out by the current recession. He compared immigrants taking American jobs to coyotes killing livestock, and when he did this he pronounced coyotes pointedly with two syllables: ky-oats” (8-9).

When Samuel, a writer and English professor at a small Midwest college discovers the identity of the assailant to be his long-lost mother, he has a difficult choice at hand. Try to bail her out as a character witness, or leverage her viral fame into an exposé in order to fulfill his contractual duties with his publisher.

Generational Pathos

With these circumstances as a backdrop, Hill sketches a picture of generational pathos. A mother haunted by the sins of her father. A son haunted by the sins of his mother. Hill outlines Samuel’s difficult upbringing, his fragile psyche, his coming of age, and his lifelong devotion to the beautiful neighbor.

“He didn’t know it then, but this would become his template for beauty for the rest of his life. Any girl he ever met from now on would be compared, in his head, to this girl” (89).

Hill, then, links this coming of age story with the origins of Samuel’s mother, Faye, set in the turmoil of 1968. Faye grows up in a small Midwest town, her father a Norwegian immigrant doing his best to make ends meet, always taking the time to pass on the Norwegian folklore of his past to his young daughter, like the story of the nix, a predatory ghost of Norway:

“When he told Faye about the Nix, he said the moral was: Don’t trust things that are too good to be true. But then she grew up and came to a new conclusion, which she told Samuel in the month before leaving the family. She told him the same story but added her own moral: ‘The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst’” (99).

Faye desires a path unlike her peers. While the rest of the girls dream of marriage, Faye fantasizes about poetry, college life, and the radical opportunity to learn from Allen Ginsburg in Chicago. Even though her parents do not want her to go to college, local circumstances force her hand and she enrolls, experiencing the free love, psychedelia, and anti-war protests of Chicago in that era. The events of 1968 Chicago ripple into the future, influencing Samuel in ways he isn’t even aware.

As Samuel discovers this complicated history, he faces difficult decisions. What is the value of a life? How is it well lived? How can repairing a relationship substitute for years of neglect when Faye was out of his life?

Family as History

The Nix argues for the value of relationship, and how the actions of our parents and grandparents influence us in small ways. Personally, and less seriously, I think about my great-grandfather and his obsession with books. Nobody ever told me I should read because my great-grandfather was a reader. But I wonder how his decisions, influence my grandfather, and in turn my father, finally to me. Is it enough to know that my grandparents had a large library in their home ever since I could remember and picture what their home looked like? It’s a small example, but it suggests the power of family goes beyond a hug and the sharing of a holiday. We are more than business people, athletes, politicians, or students. We are also mothers, father, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. Those relationships matter.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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