Book Review: The Nix
by Nathan Hill
The Nix invoked in the title of Nathan Hill’s tremendously assured sprawling debut novel is, we’re told, a creature of Norwegian mythology, an imp that sometimes takes the shape of a horse in order to lure unwary children to their doom. It’s a ready-made bit of reductionist social commentary, just the sort of thing you might expect a pretentious first-time novelist to belabor right into the ground, and there are moments early in the book when Hill seems ready to do just that:
It always went like this. The kids who were victims of the Nix always felt, at first, fear. Then luck. Then possession. Then pride. Then terror. They’d kick at the horse to go faster until it was in full gallop, the kids hanging on its neck. It was the best thing that had ever happened to them. They’d never felt so important, so full of pleasure. And only at this point – at the pinnacle of speed and joy, when they felt most in control of the horse, when they felt the most ownership of it, when they most wanted to be celebrated for it and thus felt the most vanity and arrogance and pride – would the horse veer off the road that led to town and gallop toward the cliffs overlooking the sea.
But the bulk of the actual story of The Nix builds and extrapolates quickly into very much more than one young know-it-all writer lecturing his elders about the instructive ironies of pride coming before a loss. That story centers on failed writer and listless academic Samuel Andresen-Anderson, who’d rather over-invest himself in playing the online fantasy game World of Elfquest than slog through yet another session of trying to get bored, entitled undergraduates to notice anything interesting about Hamlet. His daily life – a perfectly-realized combination of ennui and desperation – is knocked off its tracks by the sudden revelation that his long-lost mother is the woman who’s recently obsessed the 24-hour news cycle by throwing a rock at a noxious political candidate. In the process of trying to help her, Samuel quickly learns that all of his assumptions about her are wrong, that he knows next to nothing about the life she’s led in the years she’s been gone.
It’s a premise that allows Hill ample opportunity to shift big chunks of his narrative into the past, another thing that might prove disastrous in the hands of a less capable or less confident author, but Hill writes these long sections with infectious gusto and a skill for satire that virtually never fails him. He’s very often guilty of the overwriting that is the besetting curse of debut novelists, but even so: as The Nix progresses, it becomes harder and harder to remind yourself that this is somebody’s first published book. The pacing is flawless; the relationship between Samuel and his mother deepens and complicates with reassuring predictability; and the historical segments are filled with sardonic crackling, especially the pages devoted to the 1968 Democratic National Convention – and particularly candidate Hubert Humphrey, who’s compulsively showering in his hotel room in a vain attempt to scrub away the feeling of animal gore on his skin and under his fingernails. Whose idea was it, he aggrievedly wonders, to hold a convention next to a slaughterhouse?
He could sense them, smell them, hear them, the poor animals huddled and dying hundreds per hour to feed a prosperous nation. Trucked in as infants, trucked out as parts. He could smell the hogs insane with fear, the hogs hanging from hooks, their stomachs opened in cascades of blood and pig barf. The smell of bright raw ammonia used to clean the addled floors. Creatures in their death-fear releasing cries and stink glands, a terror both audible and olfactible. The chemical breath of a million aborted animal screams, aromatized and blooming into the atmosphere, a sour, meaty vapor.
True, Hill can lay this kind of thing on a bit thick (“The perfume of slaughter is at once nauseating and fascinating,” he writes. “The way the body is tuned to another body’s loss”), but for the most part he orchestrates a big, convoluted story with skill and energy and, refreshingly, a generous helping of humor. The Nix comes to bookstores already trailing clouds of critical acclaim, and in this case it’s all well-deserved: this is an enviably stunning debut.