Review: ‘The Nix’ by Nathan Hill

The NixThe Nix by Nathan Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The Nix” begins in the rip-roaring fashion of a Tom Wolfe novel: an arch, sometimes glib examination of The Way We Live Now.

The book’s protagonist has an awkward name — Samuel Andresen-Anderson — and works at a professor at a university near Chicago. The year is 2011, around the time we were all staring at the rubble of the financial crisis and Occupy was getting started. Anderson is put-upon, naturally: unwillingly single, bored, prone to spending hours playing a multiplayer online game called World of Elfscape.

Then his life is upended. His mother, a onetime ’60s activist who disappeared when he was a child, has thrown a rock at a right-wing presidential candidate. He has a slick editor and publisher (more like an agent) who pushes him to write a book about her. And thus he starts unraveling why his mother left and how he got to where he is — which is, of course, a larger story about the ’60s and today.

But the thing about Tom Wolfe novels is that not even Tom Wolfe is very good at them; in pursuing Dickens and “the billion-footed beast,” he ends up shortchanging his characters’ inner selves as he moves them through his plots like chess pieces. (The best Wolfe works, “The Right Stuff” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” are nonfiction.) This is Hill’s problem as well, but Hill has a hell of a lot more empathy for his characters than Wolfe.

So Hill ends up a wobbly figure on a tightrope. Sometimes his contrivances seem forced; other times his empathy, gift for observation and sheer writing ability will out. It makes for a thrilling, if occasionally disappointing, ride.

Hill’s observations are so spot-on that I bookmarked several. Most cutting are the descriptions of life as a professor in an era of microaggressions and frightened administrations. Anderson has a student who pictures herself as a future VP of marketing and communications, but damned if she’s going to do any work; she’s been cheating and weaseling out for years.

Hill’s portrayal of her is a tour de force — one chapter, in which she manages to convince herself not to do a paper on “Hamlet” while responding to texts and using an app called “iFeel” (one of those pointless exercises in earning cheers from your friends) — is simply brilliant.

Then there was biology, which pretty much made Laura gag just thinking about it. Because she was pretty sure the first week of her powerful marketing and communications job that she would someday have would not require her to identify the chemical chain reaction that converted a photon of light to photosynthesized sugar, such as she was currently memorizing in her Intro to Biology class that she was stupidly forced to take in order to satisfy a science requirement even though hello? she wasn’t going to be a scientist? Plus the professor was so dry and boring and the lectures so unbearable —

Another character, the publisher, is so slick and amoral he should have his own book. One of his clients is a teenage singer (actually 25) who has to put out a memoir. No problem, says the publisher; it will be ghostwritten and include a “big confession”: “I am strongly in favor of an innocently small episode of lesbianism,” he tells Samuel. “An experimental time in junior high. A special friend, a few kisses. You know. Not enough to turn off the parents but hopefully enough to get us some rainbow-flag awards.”

Or: “Being a sellout is the authentic thing. When Molly Miller says ‘I’m just being real,’ what she means is that everyone wants money and fame and any artist who claims otherwise is lying. … Molly Miller can never be accused of selling out because selling out was her goal all along.”

Hill also captures something sad and true about the ’60s and today, even though the book came out before the rise of Donald Trump. A chunk of the book takes place in 1968 Chicago, before and during the Democratic convention, and Hill’s retelling is both powerful and shrewd.

But it turns out that for every poor kid shown getting his head drubbed by a nightstick, CBS gets ten phone calls in support of the cop who held the stick. … As soon as he heard this, old Cronkite knew he’d failed. They’d been covering the radicals and the hippies so much that now his viewers couldn’t see past them. The gray areas had ceased to exist. And old Cronkite had two thoughts about this. First, anyone who thinks television can bring the nation together to have a real dialogue and begin to understand one another with empathy and compassion is suffering a great delusion. And second, Nixon is definitely going to win this thing.

But Hill doesn’t have it in him to maintain this level of cutting observation and satire the whole book. He cares. And sometimes that caring throws off his balance. Is it satire? Or something deeper and more serious? (Not that satire isn’t serious.)

Samuel’s mother turns out to have a secret, of course. So does his grandfather, and his best friend from adolescence (who died in the Iraq War). And Hill obviously has a lot of emotion for these characters and takes their plights seriously, as he should. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it leads to some trite set-pieces, as when Samuel’s mother goes back to her father’s birthplace. It feels like bad Wally Lamb, not good Nathan Hill.

There’s also a sorta chronology problem. Samuel’s mother reports to school at the University of Illinois-Chicago in July-August 1968, and yet what would logically be a summer session, with the relaxed feel of a summer session, is described as if it were deep into the fall semester. I just didn’t buy it, though it may very well be true.

Which is not to say I didn’t keep turning pages to find out how he was going to tie it all together: Samuel’s search, a traumatic childhood event, Chicago 1968, the cheating student, the players of Elfscape (one of which, Pwnage, is another marvel of detail), the role of the publisher. Nathan Hill can flat-out write.

So if I seem a little more lukewarm about “The Nix” (the title refers to a Norwegian spirit, though perhaps another spirit — of a certain Tricky president — also wafts over the proceedings), it’s more for what could have been than what is. But they say you shouldn’t review the book you wanted, but the book you have. And “The Nix,” despite its faults, is a very good book. I look forward to what Nathan Hill writes next.

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