Holy cow this is a good book. There is much more to it than the story of a mother and the son she left. Different from all the other recent releases I've read, THE NIX is terrific. I may be easily impressed after the run of mediocrity I've read recently. We'll see how I feel in a year or so, but I think I will remember this book if only for the massive scope and hilarity. I found myself telling a cashier at the local convenience store about a chapter I found priceless (chapter four.) She did not share my glee. I had no idea chapter four would serve only as an amuse-bouche for the rest of this amazing novel.
Our main character is Samuel Andresen-Anderson and he's very closely linked to his mother Faye, who left him when he was eleven. Through the story of Samuel, we learn the story of his mother and the many characters and events which populate their lives over several decades. We do move around in time, but we only move when it makes sense to do so. As such, there are cliffhangers within the novel and many individual narratives that feed and develop the larger arc.
The story is good, but the real beauty is in Nathan Hill's ability to explain senses, feelings, scenes and complicated life entanglements. He does it by nestling story within story like a magical Russian nesting doll. The book is broken into ten parts and a prologue. The ten larger parts have chapters within them. It's a big novel (over 700 pages) but an easy read.
There are a huge number of characters, and they all have their own voices. Never once did I need to remind myself who this person might be. They all have such clear and singular voices that if I was momentarily incognizant, I was quickly reminded by the character herself. Myriad "non-main" characters could be easily lost, but Hill builds them so completely, the minute one thinks or speaks, even if the name hasn't stuck with me, I knew where I was and with whom I was dealing. Moreover, somehow all of these characters are integral to the overall story. None are left dangling around the edges. They all fit in somewhere along the line. I wasn't sure that could happen early in the book, but it did. Writing this must have required huge whiteboards or flowcharts. Reading it does not.
I can't neglect to mention the ability with which music and sound are described. As a music lover, I'm often at a loss to explain the way I experience music. Now I will simply use one of the many pages I've marked in this book. Whether or not the author is a musician himself, he understands the way music and sound move us as human beings. He understands a lot about human beings, actually, but it's never schmaltzy. It's often funny. Sometimes it's truly touching, though I never once felt like I was being taught some lesson, forcefed morality or even just emotionally manipulated. It just chugged along being interesting, entertaining, and delightful from beginning to end. I worried in early chapters that Hill was setting his goals too high. I had no cause to fret.
Selfishly I hope THE NIX isn't Nathan Hill's story. I want to read more from this writer. In less gifted hands, this could have been a disaster. Most decidedly it is not. Nathan Hill writes with the surety and confidence his main characters do not have.