The Nix by Nathan Hill: Nothing ventured, nothing gained

I first spotted The Nix back in September last year on our riding the Central European railways holiday. It was sitting on a table in the English bookshop wing of Dussmann’s in Berlin, too chunky to justify including in the luggage that had to be hefted on and off the train. It looked right up my alley – a novel which explored American politics through the relationship between a mother and the son she left when he was eleven years old. Hard to leave it behind back then but it’s been well worth the wait

Samuel is an assistant professor in his mid-thirties, still yearning for his first love, one acclaimed short story under his belt, a long-spent advance for a novel on the strength of it and an unhealthy addiction to computer games. He’s faced with a perennial problem for academics – the plagiarised paper – but hasn’t bargained on the towering sense of entitlement and self-esteem of its ‘author’ who soon persuades the all too accommodating authorities that it’s Samuel who’s in the wrong. Meanwhile a woman in her sixties throws stones at the Governor of Illinois, quickly becoming notorious while ensuring the Governor a foot on the presidential nomination ladder. The Packer Attacker, as the media dubs her busily adding a few salacious details into the bargain, turns out to be Samuel’s mother, last seen by him in 1988. Now she needs a letter, a character reference, to help get her off the hook but Samuel’s publisher, always a man with an eye for the main chance, sees an opportunity to cash in, persuading Samuel to write book about his mother. Like all good academics, Samuel embarks on researching his subject but finds himself looking for an answer to the question that haunts him: why did she leave?

Hill’s book is a big novel in every sense of the word. With a keen acuity, it explores the panorama of American life from the heady idealism of the ‘60s – or so it seemed – to 2011 with the world still reeling from the global financial crisis, through the lens of Faye and Samuel’s stories, shifting from one point of view to the other as it does so. It’s a completely engrossing piece of storytelling which takes you backwards and forwards from Faye’s early adulthood, brought up by a man who taught her to be afraid of failing, to her brief brush with radicalism at her Chicago university, to her 2011 infamy and Samuel’s reappearance in her life. The writing is striking from the get-go as Hill describes Faye’s long drawn out departure from the family home. He draws you in to each of his story’s time periods, gathering up your attention so that you’re loath to tear yourself away from one to the next then quickly absorbing it again. The 1968 sections are particularly sharp, the description of the riots surrounding the Democratic Convention gut-wrenching – urgent, bloody and terrifying. And it’s very funny: Hill hurls well-aimed barbs at all manner of things from social media to advertising, publishing to academia – the latter spot-on according to H – to mention but a few. Careful plotting – there’s a particularly pleasing reveal towards the end – ensures that each piece of the puzzle slots neatly and satisfyingly into place until both Faye and Samuel’s stories are told. It ends with fresh starts, a much-needed reminder that despite all that’s gone before there will always be both redemption and hope somewhere in the world, albeit personal rather than political.

I read this novel in the long shadow of the Trump presidency but it was written while that prospect must have seemed a distant nightmare. As I read it I wondered if Hill’s story might have been any different had he known what was to come but I hope that ending would have remained the same.

22 thoughts on “The Nix by Nathan Hill: Nothing ventured, nothing gained”

  1. While I’m intrigued by the premise, it’s the structure that has me pondering a purchase to explore how he bridges the eras. And I love the promise of some ‘funny’ … a key hook for me at the moment!

    1. Those shifts from period to period then back again are deftly handled, Poppy. And, yes, I think we all need something to laugh at right now.

  2. When I lived in Berlin I had the good fortune to live within walking distance of Dusmann’s. It’s a place in which you easily spend more time (and money) than you intended.

        1. I’m quite envious! It’s become one on my favourite cities. I’ve visited it three times and would go back tomorrow, given the chance.

  3. I love the sound of the satisfying reveal: when one reads a lot, it’s hard to find those (you get so good at guessing)!

  4. I just today finished reading City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg — it only took me a month! 😉 In scope and certain themes this sounds like it might be similar. I can’t remember if you read City on Fire? I’m wary of doorstoppers, but ended up loving City on Fire, and you make this one sound appealing too. The initial setup also reminds me a bit of The World According to Garp.

    1. I did start City of Fire but didn’t get on with it very well, I’m afraid, although I think you’re right – it has things in common with The Nix. The focus seems sharper in Hill’s novel but it’s sometime since I tried the Hallberg so I may be wrong. I hope you enjoyed City of Fire!

    1. Thanks, Susan. It is a bit of a door stopper but I was amazed by how quickly I read it. It’s the kind of book that carries you along with it.

    1. No, you’ll need to give those arms a rest! It bowls along rather more speedily than War and Peace, though. I’m embarrassed to admit that I tend to get bogged down with Russian names.

      1. Well given that every name in W&P has eleventy-million variations, I understand that. I am continually referring to the character list and must admit that had I not seen the (amazing) BBC production last year, I’d be lost – watching it gave me enough of an overview to encourage me to push on with reading it.

        1. If you liked Andrew Davies’ W&P adaptation I can recommend his take on Vanity Fair if you haven’t already seen it. A very modern, very sassy Becky. We rewatched it last winter and loved it all over again.

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