Nell Zink’s “Doxology” feels as if it should come with a soundtrack drawn from the independent music scene of New York in the 1990s. Zink’s former work as the editor of an indie-rock fanzine provides her bona fides as she introduces readers to Pam Bailey, who plays CBGB’s one night with her art project band, fronted by her deadbeat roommate.
Bailey is in New York after catching a Greyhound at the beginning of her senior year of high school in order to pursue her dream to become an “artist,” funded by money she had earned when she designed an “outer-space-themed role-playing game” that her father licensed to Atari. In New York, she works for a computer company startup.
Her friend Joe Harris possesses all the features of Williams syndrome, “the typical broad mouth, stellate irises, spatial ineptitude, gregarious extroversion, storytelling habit, heart defect, and musical gift.” And while he isn’t intellectually disabled, he trusts everyone he meets and speaks his mind in ways that make “his capacity to irritate others … near infinite.”
Joe’s friend Daniel Svoboda is an ’80s hipster, which with comic irony Zink notes means that “he was a byproduct of the brief, shining moment in American history when the working class went to liberal arts college for free,” the “short-lived cap of spume on the dirty wave of working-class higher education.”
When Joe introduces Daniel to Pam so the three can make music together, the two commence a sexual relationship in which Pam gets pregnant immediately. Despite their youth and the coupling’s newness, they barrel headlong into parenthood and welcome baby Flora.
Both parents continue to work while Joe becomes Flora’s full-time care provider.
When Joe becomes an accidental rock star, his rising star intersects with the events of Sept. 11, and everything changes for the trio. Zink switches up the narration at this point, following Flora until she becomes a college student whose analytical, look-before-you-leap pragmatism and political savvy create as much of a generation gap with her parents as they had with their parents before them.
“Doxology” could have been two novels: the first chronicling the lives of those who live by their instincts and guided by their hearts; the second a chronicle of one who felt burnt by that previous approach, and who now lives a life of the intellect and whose heart is behind barricades. Flora sees how her parents’ self-absorption in music and “finding” themselves has left a legacy to her of a planet on the edge of climate meltdown.
The dualism at the heart of Zink’s entertaining and clever novel is another approach to an ancient puzzle: What part of ourselves do we allow to lead us? Are we better served by our rational intellects, which apprehend reality and present us with calibrated answers, or should we be creatures whose passionate hearts and gut instincts direct our path? The middle ground is, of course, where most of us end up. How her characters get to that place is at the heart of Zink’s bittersweet and brilliant work.
Lorraine Berry is a writer in Florida.
By: Nell Zink.
Publisher: Ecco, 402 pages, $27.99.