So now I'm back, and thrilled to tell you that I've just discovered the next Jonathan Franzen, though you'll have to wait until the end of August to share my admiration. Thank you to journalism professor, Lyn Millner, for tipping me off to this debut novel by one of her former colleagues, Nathan Hill. https://nathanhill.net/
I simply cannot believe that "The Nix" is a first novel. Mr. Hill seems so young (I met him at Book Expo), yet his book is so wise, funny, and all-encompassing that it feels like the work of a mature, experienced writer. And the research he must have done in order to so expertly describe for his readers the physical toll on the body of a person suffering from addiction to gaming, or the incredible concentration of a violinist preparing for a concert - well, it's just overwhelming. Oh, and I defy you not to laugh out loud as Hill skewers academia today, the coddled students, the political correctness, and the guaranteed grades that are ruining our institutes of higher learning.
So what is the book about you ask. Just listen to this first line.
"If Samuel had known that his mother was leaving, he might have paid more attention."
This is a story of abandonment, of a young man so deeply scarred by the disappearance of his mother when he was only a boy, that he doesn't even recognize the damage. When, twenty-some years later, Samuel gets a call from an attorney asking if he'll provide a character reference for his mother, you might not blame him for declining. He wants nothing to do with her. He doesn't even know this woman, branded by the media as an aging radical hippie, on trial for allegedly throwing gravel at a Trump-like politician and accidentally blinding him.
But then, in another hilarious trashing of the publishing industry, Samuel, a budding writer without a story, is blackmailed by his agent into writing a tell-all about his mom, Faye Andresen-Anderson. So, for all the wrong reasons, Sam tries to reconnect with his mother and we readers are treated to a tour-de-force of gorgeous prose.
Hill takes us back to the turbulent sixties. As he describes being smothered in the crush of a political demonstration gone out of control, horses and cops bearing down on students, the feeling of fear and breathlessness is visceral. The memories of Sam's own lonely childhood are wonderfully explicit, the boy reading under the covers at night, penning his own "Choose Your Own Adventure" story, is a child you want to wrap your arms around.
Secondary characters are incredibly drawn and nuanced, especially the twins, Bishop, Sam's troubled best friend, and Bishop's sister Bethany, who will always be Sam's north star. And there's Sebastian, the charismatic leader of the Chicago protests, Faye's first love, who incites naïve students to do his bidding yet never seems to be there himself when the arrests are made.
The depth and breadth of this 600 plus page novel is astounding. Hill writes with great insight about friendship, love, responsibility, convictions, and courage. I mentioned that I see him as the next Franzen but I believe that Hill has more humanity, a more generous, forgiving nature for his fellow human beings. "The Nix" is a must-read and is now firmly at number one out of the sixty books I've read so far this year. I would love to send my copy to the first new commenter on my blog. Trust me, you'll be glad you spoke up.