Big novels need to open big. But 2016 has made the opening pages of Nathan Hill’s debut novel, “The Nix,” almost comically quaint. In 2011 a woman, Faye, throws rocks at a right-wing presidential candidate, and we’re meant to believe this sends the media into a tizzy (“Terror in Chicago!”), and that cable news will obsess over Faye’s flirtation with ’60s radicalism. With 600 pages to go, it’d be easy to conclude that political reality is more interesting than fiction.
Soldier on: “The Nix” is a durable, entertaining, at times harshly skeptical novel. At its center is Faye’s estranged son, Samuel, a failed novelist who is pulled in two directions by the incident. Mom’s lawyer wants a letter defending her character. But Samuel’s editor, who’s ready to sue over his never-delivered debut, wants a tell-all about her abandoning him as a child. (“Remember, less empathy, more carnage,” he advises.)
Samuel’s dilemma echoes broader conflicts in “The Nix,” which moves from Iowa to New York to Chicago between 1968 and 2011 to address pop culture, higher education, the media, liberal politics and marriage. To some degree, Hill suggests, all are flimsy institutions. Samuel teaches English at a college that’s hostile to the humanities and coddles a cheating student. The right funds the radical left. Couples who think they’re in love are actually manipulated. And 9/11 is exploited by a cable-food program trumpeting the “Twin Towers Gut Buster,” whose chef concocted it “a few years back in order to ‘never forget.’ ”
Small wonder Samuel slumps in his office playing a “World of Warcraft”-style game — an empty reality demands empty goals. But once Samuel is moved to investigate his mother’s past — first by money, then by genuine curiosity — he finds a truer sense of purpose. That’s encapsulated in the novel’s title, which refers to a bit of Norwegian folklore Samuel’s mom told him, about an enchanted horse that pulls riders over a cliff. “Things you love the most will one day hurt you the most” is the story’s first moral, she tells him. The second: “People can be a Nix for each other.”
If that doesn’t sound life-affirming, Hill argues that not all is lost; we only need to choose our relationships carefully. Samuel has made poor decisions that seemed right, like choosing the buzz-chasing editor who launched his career, and good ones that seemed wrong, like befriending a slacker fellow gamer who provides some essential mom-research assistance. The less mediated our decisions, the better off we are.
“The Nix” aspires to both the sweep and social critique of the past generation’s big-book authors — Tartt, Franzen, Eugenides. Hill, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, has the style and bravado to belong in that company, and a candor that, if he can sustain it, suggests a brash new path as well.
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix. His book on contemporary Midwestern fiction, “The New Midwest,” will be published in January.
By: Nathan Hill.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 625 pages, $27.95.
Events: 7 p.m. Sept. 12, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11, University of St. Thomas; 7 p.m. Oct. 12 Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls