It’s not often you come across a new novel anymore that feels particularly concerned with the present historical moment. With its references to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton running for president, a plot propelled by smartphones and hashtags, and a bemused preoccupation with rapidly shifting cultural traditions and sexual mores, Nell Zink’s “Nicotine” skewers a period in time — 2016 — that already seems to deserve it richly.
Zink has recently enjoyed the kind of later-in-life success that inspires hero worship and envy in aspiring authors everywhere. Her first novel, the short, strange “The Wallcreeper,” came out in 2014, the year she turned 50. Last year she followed it up with “Mislaid,” a barbed but lovable satire of racial and sexual identity that became a finalist for the National Book Award.
Freed from obscurity, Zink is making up for lost time. In addition to “Nicotine,” her publisher, Ecco, is releasing “Private Novelist,” which collects a novel and a novella she wrote and shelved in the late ’90s. A foreword notes that a literary agent once deemed the novel “unpublishable,” and if you attempt to read it, you’ll see why.
“Nicotine” is a better place to start. As it opens, Penny Baker, a recent college graduate, is nursing her much older father on his deathbed. Norm Baker is a sort of suburban New Jersey shaman, whose psychedelic healing practices earned him a cultlike following among a certain kind of aging hippie.
Following his death, Penny, her half-brother and her mother become entangled with a group of anarchist squatters living in Norm’s decrepit childhood home in Jersey City. Bound as pariahs by their shared love of tobacco products, they have dubbed the house “Nicotine.”
Penny, unmoored by her father’s death, inserts herself into a makeshift family that includes Rob, a good-looking bicycle repairman who professes to be asexual, and Jazz, a wild Kurdish woman who falls into an obsessive, toxic affair with Penny’s ill-mannered half-brother Matt.
While Penny is the nominal protagonist, it’s Matt and Jazz who give the book much of its narrative energy. A sort of 21st-century Don Draper, Matt is wealthy and handsome but too screwed up to leverage his privilege for good.
“He feels the unpleasant, helpless sensation of being trapped in a conversation with an equal,” Zink writes of Matt’s sparring with Jazz. The course of their dysfunctional relationship provides an almost thriller-like tension to the book’s last 50 pages.
“Nicotine” is grittier and more down-to-earth than “Mislaid,” less showy and prone to digression. Sex scenes are plentiful and often explicit. That it works as well as it does, without bogging down in pathos, is a testament to Zink’s deftness in portraying the clashing values and quirks of three successive generations — baby boomers, Gen-Xers and millennials.
For a 50-something writer who has lived abroad for more than a decade, Zink has a sharp knack for illuminating the challenges facing American millennials circa now: the dicey customs and codes of an increasingly racially and sexually diverse society, the growing blur between social media and lived experience, the difficulty of making a living in a post-career economy.
Little of that precision is on display in “Private Novelist.” The premise is almost too absurd to explain in a single paragraph: Two decades ago, Zink struck up a friendship with Avner Shats, a little-known Israeli author who had recently published a novel in Hebrew titled “Sailing Towards the Sunset.” Although she did not speak Hebrew, Zink embarked on a sort of mock translation of the book.
The result is “Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats,” which comprises the majority of “Private Novelist.” Frequently inscrutable, it’s a patchwork of bizarre scenes and absurd characters (including one that may or may not be a seal), jokey literary references likely to be lost on all but the most sophisticated readers and occasional bursts of personal history.
Those bits where Zink writes of her early life all come near the end, and they nearly make the whole thing worth reading. Let’s hope sooner or later she writes a proper memoir. If you’re interested in Zink, don’t read “Private Novelist” until after “Nicotine” and her other two novels. It’s there you’ll find the cutting social commentary and sharply drawn characters of one of this decade’s most promising new novelists.
Patrick Condon is a political reporter for the Star Tribune.
By Nell Zink.
Publisher: Ecco, 304 pages, $26.99.