At the start of last summer, I wandered into BookPeople downtown with no intention of buying a single thing. I had a strict summer budget and an already disorderly pile of unread books sitting on my living room floor. Still, I needed a short, easy read — the kind that requires little brain function in the summer heat.
While I didn’t necessarily need a new book, especially one as lengthy as 700 pages, “The Nix” by Nathan Hill stood out. It had quite a few things going for it: a bold, primary colored title face, a 1960s-esque photograph and the seal of approval from The New York Times.
My bank account and the sad, unread pile of books at home weren’t going to be happy, but they were going to have to deal. I walked out of the bookstore, new novel in hand, happy and ready to read.
And then, in an instant, summer was almost over and I had shaven my stack of books down by half, maybe. “The Nix” sat partially read with a dog-ear no more than 20 pages in. It wasn’t that those first 20 pages were bad, they were just complex — the kind of complex that needs actual brain function.
As fall drew closer, I began setting aside time for my old friend, “The Nix.” At first, it was a couple chapters before bed or a whole afternoon on the Admin Lawn. But then, just as quickly as I began reading, I began tearing through the pages. Hill had created something that I couldn’t put down.
No, “The Nix” is not about President Nixon and it’s not entirely about rebellious uprising like the front cover might suggest. This bulky novel taps into an array of narratives in a plentiful ten parts. It details the 1968 Chicago protests, the life of a lackluster college professor in 2011, online gaming and Germanic folklore. More than anything, this novel is the perfect snapshot of now — a period in time where history might be repeating itself.
Part one of Hill’s debut novel is titled “The Packer Attacker.” The first line reads, “The headline appears one afternoon on several news websites almost simultaneously: Governor Packer Attacked!” From this intro alone or the first chapter, you wouldn’t know the novel could carry so many themes. It would seem at first glance the storyline might simply follow the aftermath of a public and tumultuous attack on a politician.
After just nine pages however, the narrative turns to Samuel Andresen-Anderson. Yep, you read that right — it’s one of the many genius, yet confusing pieces of Samuel’s persona. But what is even more interesting is the long-lost mother that abandoned him and the possibility she has become a criminal.
Samuel is an average, 30-something professor who might have peaked in his early 20s. He is addicted to online gaming, apathetic toward his students, pining for a girl he knew in grade school, bereft of any creative ideas for his next novel and quite possibly the child of a newly-made criminal. Among these seemingly unlikeable attributes, somehow Samuel remains quite relatable.
When his mother, Faye, abruptly appears on national television, Samuel is given the chance to leave his writing slump and create a tell-all around the parent he knows little to nothing about. Samuel’s decision to write his mother’s story along with the repressed memories of his childhood create a haunting narrative for the character.
That haunting thread is carried throughout the story with the novel’s signature name “The Nix.” As Hill illustrates, a nix is a spirit that finds a person in their lowest moment and follows them for life. Samuel’s nix is everything and everyone, but this ghost that just won’t go away is the one thing keeping him grounded.
It took me a while to dive into this complex and slightly heartbreaking and beautiful novel. I was supposed to pick quick summer reads that didn’t fry my brain like the heat would. But, I liked the way this novel fried my brain. It made me think. It made me laugh. And most of all, it made me think about the complexities of a single human life and all the lives around it.
Hailey Stewart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at Haileyann97