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Is Nathan Hill a new Dickens? John Irving thinks he might be


The Nix

By Nathan Hill


628 pages, $24.95

Of course, John Irving likes "The Nix" and compares Nathan Hill to Dickens. How could he not? Hill's manic energy and astounding breadth of knowledge put him right in Irving's footsteps and perhaps beyond Dickens in historical scope.

Hill starts with the everyday, wanders off into every possible kind of sidetrack and returns to home base, without missing a beat.  Norse mythology? The title is also the Germanic word for certain haunting spirits that even cross oceans to work their mischief. Everyone knows that writing teachers like to advise their students to "Write what you know," when what do they know yet anyway? Wiseacre financial advisers suggest to stock-market investors, "Buy low, sell high," as if there really is a way to tell in advance when a particular stock would rise or decline.

Hill adheres to the writing advice. When he writes about a time, place, feeling, it's a good bet that he knows plenty about it. Any questions about pretty much anything? Hill already may have examined it in detail in "The Nix," his first novel. For example -- Q: What is a first kiss like?  A: Their teeth bump.

What captures the mind of a video game addict? Pwnage -- the only name Hill has let the character have -- is messed up. He has to keep buying more computers to pay the fees he needs to stay in the games beyond the point where they are too easy and become boring. He finally can bear the stress no longer.

Hill tells us in a single sentence what the withdrawal can be like. It begins, "Today he would stop playing forever." The sentence runs 11 pages long -- Faulkner, anyone? In another place, a sentences takes 37 lines of type. Yes, Pwnage does quit. He is so drained that he sleeps for a month in a hospital, and -- well, it gets even more complicated.

So why would anyone take Hill's word for the withdrawal process and plenty of other data he lavishes on the reader? Could he not have interviewed some players, done some reading, whatever?  He did not have to.

During a dry spell without selling much, if any, of his writing, Hill was playing something like World of Warfare for about 40 hours a week. Somehow he managed to get back on track and assemble this gigantic first novel. The point is that his own experiences give his work the ring of truth.

The plot begins simply enough: A college professor, who has received advance payment for a book he still hasn't written, learns his mother has been arrested for throwing pebbles at a candidate for president. Fact is, she was aiming at someone else but still gets charged with terrorism. Hill hilariously describes how to get on a plane before your name makes it to the no-fly list. Agency after agency has to sign off on the order. Faye, the professor's estranged mother, eventually is allowed to fly but Samuel Andresen-Andersen (don't ask, Hill explains it later) is detained.

He agrees to write a different book, savaging his mom. Samuel  has not seen or heard from her since her surprise departure when he was 12 years old. He knows hardly anything about her, so his quest is to seek her out and learn at least enough to destroy her in the book.

Along the way, he loses the love of his life by refusing -- or merely failing -- to help her jilt the fiance her family has manipulated into her world. Elsewhere, Samuel and his boyhood friend prankishly put into the sadistic schoolmaster's hot tub a block of poisoned salt the neighbors use to kill deer. The results are fatal but not traceable. Samuel goes to college, his pal to Iraq.

Hill's uncanny way of evoking other authors may leave some readers wondering whether he uses parallels deliberately. He is only 40 or so years old, so how likely is it that he would be familiar with Simone de Beauvoir's pre-Betty Friedan bible of feminism, "The Second Sex"?  Yet the video game addict's refrigerator full of decomposing health foods harks back to Beavoir.

Her scathing description of women's lives still resonates over the decades. In one passage, she describes how women of her time (mid-20th Century) preserved foods in jars on basement and pantry shelves at great cost of time and energy, only to have the food -- at least some of it -- eventually spoil. And for what?

Another writer, not quite a savior figure, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg shows up on campus. He is a point of light during Hill's virtuoso account of the riots at 1968's Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Warning: The convention sadism is more shocking and sickening than the later war scenes in Iraq. Ginsberg comes and goes as a kind of benevolent presence for Faye, Samuel's mother. Hill sees to it that she really needs kindness in her life, stifling at best, brutal at worst. Ginsberg's peaceful presence fills the bill.

Not many readers are likely to skip through "The Nix." After a few pages, they can see that they would miss too much good reading by skimming. Hill's brilliance shines through every sentence, whether he has a character warning about pagan Norwegian spirits, good and evil, the femur-like corn stalks of autumn or the interior decor of Manhattan high-end offices. Describing music is always a challenge, so Hill takes on Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 and how it enters the soul of a middle-school-age listener. Hill wins.

Elsewhere, he captures the manic tone of a sadistic police officer delighting in the sound his baton makes as it hits the skulls of the demonstrators at the convention, cushioning the narrative with cut-ins of an actual baseball player.

Hill seems to enjoy such doubling of the narrative, and he does well at it. For example, two men discuss video gaming in a bar where the TV is on. The TV dialogue runs parallel to the "live" talk in a kind of literary counterpoint. Hill uses the device often and to good effect.

Pound for pound, "The Nix" has to be among the best work in this year's literary offerings. Even just typing it would have been an achievement. Now that Hill has mastered his material and produced this masterpiece, readers can hope he keeps writing.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.


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