The first thing that came to mind as I pondered my reading experience with Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf, 625 pp., $27.95), is the oft-used (but still prescient) line that Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina: “All families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This very long book is, at heart, a meditation on one very unhappy fictional family. To wit, a baby boom generation mother who has made a giant, stinking mess of her entire life and her adult son who is about to follow in her footsteps. Said messes include terribly unhappy childhoods, messy adolescences, and emotionally distressing adulthoods.
The mother in question, Faye Andresen, is brought up in a stifling Iowa town in the fifties and sixties and has a catastrophic, aborted college experience in Chicago in 1967 and 1968. Her son, Samuel Andresen-Anderson experiences a tortuous childhood, especially after his mother walks out on his family with no warning and for no apparent reason.
Samuel somehow survives his childhood and adolescent traumas, and becomes a college professor. The work is singularly uninspiring and Samuel descends into depressing—and countless hours playing some adolescent on-line game.
Then things go from worse to worse after Faye sort-of attacks a demagogic politician and Samuel has his entire world fall apart after an self-deceiving, selfish student falsely accuses him of mistreating her.
Hill spins out this yarn flashing back and forth in time, including a long section near the end in which Faye is caught up in the mayhem of the police riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago–which is where the Vietnam War comes in. That and a small part earlier in the book where Faye’s boyfriend back home wrestles with the biggest question that every male of that generation faced: what to do about the Vietnam War draft.
Hill is a more-than-capable storyteller and novelist. He brings his mostly over-the-top characters alive and created dizzying, almost-believable plots and subplots, often with ironic humor–and frequently with painful emotional and physical consequences for his characters.
His (almost literally) blow-by-blow rendition of the mayhem that occurred in the streets of downtown during the Democratic National Convention is intense–and probably (like the rest of the book) about twice as long as it should be.
That long set piece also is the vehicle Hill uses to let the reader know several secrets and to bring resolution of sorts to the careening lives of Faye and Samuel.