It’s been attracting strong reviews, including a starred one here in the pages of Kirkus, and many enthusiastic readers as well. That’s all to the good, though the will of the universe seems to have been thwarted in what appears to be a happy outcome—for, to hear him tell it, Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, almost didn’t happen. At least not the way he intended it.
A dozen years ago, fresh out of grad school, Hill moved to New York. “I’d always wanted to live there,” he says, speaking from his home in Chicago, “like every kid from the Midwest who dreams of going to New York one day.” After bunking in a crummy place in Queens for a month, he found his own apartment. Then, on move-in day, his car was broken into. Gone were his computer and all his backup disks, three years’ worth of work on a book now vanished.
“I freaked,” says Hill. “Then I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, it’s time to get back to work,’ so I began what I thought was going to be a short story about a demonstration I’d seen a few days earlier at the Republican National Convention in Madison Square Garden.”
Fast-forward a few months, and that short story had grown into a couple of hundred pages. Fast-forward another four years, and it was now 1,000 pages. Uncertain about how to wrap up a story that had grown far beyond his initial plans, and not entirely happy with it, Hill had a flash of insight. “I’d been thinking of it wrong,” he says, “thinking of it as a widget, a way to step into the literary world and to get something out of it. The result was that there was a lot of my own anxiety folded into the story, and that seemed wrong.”
Out went a good chunk of that draft, and in its place, over the next four years, came a story that still reflected that germ of protest on 32nd Street, a story that now embraced a big sweep of American history between generations, one protesting Vietnam and the other Iraq, to say nothing of hefty bits of the deeper Scandinavian past hinted at in the book’s ominous title.
To be sure, it seems fair to say that some of Hill’s anxiety survived in the person of his protagonist, Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a double-named-for-a-reason novelist and teacher who has yet to make his prodding editor anything but miserable. Constantly lamenting his client’s “total failure to become a famous writer,” Guy Periwinkle—a name, speaking of which, that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pynchon yarn—is a living, breathing parody of the publishing and pop-culture businesses which Hill takes evident pleasure in skewering as his story moves along. Potato chips as “a tiny blip of pleasure to repel the gathering darkness,” indeed.
But the story is deeper than mere satire, though it gets in its digs at advertising, celebrity, and academia as well. A dozen years of hard work has shaped into a small epic that, like Helen DeWitt’s recently rediscovered novel The Last Samurai, connects parent and child in ways that neither might have foreseen, bonds fraught with expectation and disappointment. Samuel’s mother has a way of embarrassing him in spectacular, headline-grabbing ways (“The Untold Inside Story of America’s Most Famous Radical Leftist, by the Son She Abandoned,” as a whipped-up Periwinkle product has it), but she’s never less than interesting, and she teaches him a thing or two about life along the way.
It’s a big-picture book, The Nix, swimming in ideas as well as action. And as for Hill—well, he’s working on another novel. With any luck, it will take him less than a dozen years to finish. Even if it does, though, we’re sure it’ll be worth waiting for.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.