Samuel Anderson, the guileless protagonist of The Nix, Nathan Hill’s sprawling debut novel, is a Chicago college professor with a past that’s as murky to him as his future. Samuel, whose mother abandoned him at age 11, medicates the stress of his daily existence with alarmingly large doses of online gaming while contending with the likes of Laura Pottsdam, a conniving student intent on getting him fired, and Guy Periwinkle, a New York book publisher threatening suit over Samuel’s failure to deliver a long-overdue manuscript.
Then, in the midst of these plebeian travails, Samuel’s routine is upended when the video of a rock-throwing assault on U.S. presidential candidate Sheldon Packer goes viral and the assailant – the so-called Packer Attacker – turns out to be none other than Faye Andresen- Anderson, Samuel’s long-lost mother. The opportunistic Periwinkle, hoping to strike while the klieg lights are hot, proposes that Samuel settle their dispute by writing a quickie, tell-all biography of his estranged mother, who’s become an internet sensation. Accepting the assignment, Samuel sets out to chronicle the life of a woman he barely knows and, in the process, discover the hidden truths that underpin his own existence.
“Any problem you face in a video game or in life is either one of four things: an enemy, obstacle, puzzle, or trap,” advises Pwnage, Samuel’s gaming mentor, early in the novel. “That’s it. Everyone you meet in life is one of those four things.”
Proving the wisdom of this insight, Samuel uses an old photograph of his mother as a kind of treasure map that leads him, circuitously, from a leafy Chicago suburb to a Gulf War battlefield to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, epicenter of the Vietnam-era antiwar protest movement, and, it turns out, the launch pad for all that follows, both in Faye’s life and in Samuel’s own.
The Nix ($27.95, from Alfred A. Knopf), while often comedic, is in the end a bittersweet story of loss, yearning, and rediscovery told from over a dozen character viewpoints. These include Bishop Fall, Samuel’s best childhood friend, and his sister Bethany, a violin prodigy whose first kiss will haunt Samuel for the rest of his days. They include Faye, both as an earnest Iowa schoolgirl and as the troubled adult whom Samuel will come to know only gradually, and mostly through the eyes of others. They include Pottsdam, Periwinkle, and Pwnage, the latter a kind of idiot savant who, when not dispensing his cryptic wisdom, lives in thrall to his cherished World of Elfquest video game. And they include such real-life characters as the poet Allen Ginsberg, newsman Walter Cronkite, and Senator Hubert Humphrey.
And therein lies the book’s Achilles’ heel. While Hill’s prose can be lyrical in the mouths of many characters – young Samuel in particular – the cacophony of voices lends a disjointed quality to the novel and, in the worst of auctorial sins, affords the reader not-infrequent glimpses of the writer’s hand at work.
The nix (or nisse) of the book’s title is a vengeful spirit of Norwegian myth; a great white horse that picks up children only to drown them in the sea. “The things you love the most can hurt you the worst,” Faye warns her thennine- year-old son. It’s both a foreshadowing of their relationship and, ultimately, the moral of this impressive, if mildly flawed, debut novel.
Chuck Greaves is the author of five novels, most recently Tom & Lucky (Bloomsbury), a WSJ “Best Books of 2015” selection, Macavity Award finalist, and finalist for the 2016 Harper Lee Prize. You can visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.