The Great American Novel

The Nix
By Nathan Hill
752 pp (paperback). Vintage. $17.

I’m always wary when a book has been dubbed “The Great American Novel” by any critic or individual. In some way, I have always found the term somewhat of an oxymoron. There are very few American novels I find to be great, and almost none in the past 30 years or so. For whatever reason, I have always been more drawn to European and other international authors, as the themes they tackle seem to be less insular, less local than those of their American counterparts.

I recently read two of the novels about which the words “Great” and “American” have been tossed haphazardly together — the Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch and the very recent The Topeka School Like so many other “Great American Novels” both left me indifferent, with the latter sending a chill from the pages, down my fingers, and at last into my heart. This is the book the New York Times recently named one of its 10 Best Books of 2019?

Bizarre.

And yet. 

I think I may have at last stumbled upon it.

It. 

The Great American Novel.

Because “The Nix” is fabulous. The kind of once-in-a-decade read that has me thinking about it long after I’ve finished it (13 days and counting). 

How this failed to receive the fanfare awarded to “The Goldfinch” or the latest Jonathan Franzen novel is beyond me. Because it is so so much better than everything else in the contemporary American canon. 

The writing, first and foremost, is fantastic. Where did Nathan Hill come from? The characters he creates are brilliantly real, horrifyingly relatable, and often devastatingly funny. 

I read nearly the entire book on a 23-hour train ride from Buffalo to Atlanta — I slept the rest of the time — and I am grateful to Nathan Hill for making those hours fly by. I also did something I sometimes do, especially when traveling, which is that I listened to the audiobook while reading the print edition. In this case, both reading and listening enhanced my experience of the text dramatically. It helps that the audiobook is narrated by Ari Fliakos who does an absolutely extraordinary job voicing these characters. 

There is just so much to love here. The characters, as I mentioned. Yes, all of them. And that a part of the book is written in the style of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that I, and it would seem, Nathan Hill, loved so much growing up. 

Chapters alternately take readers into the past, into the present, and across various landscapes, such as a small, curious oil town in the far north of Norway. 

Unlike “The Goldfinch” and “The Topeka School”, “The Nix” isn’t hitting you over the head trying to make its point, screaming at you all the while that it’s art. It’s not trying to tell you something profound about the world in the age of Trump, but by not doing any of that it comes off as more profound, more artful, and more current. 

It’s about relationships — sons and mothers, fathers and daughters — but it’s also about the world as it was then and as it is now.

While the title of “The Nix” may reference a shapeshifting spirit from Germanic and Scandinavian folklore, its contents couldn’t be more grounded in present reality. The story is an echo of sorts, originating in a space and time not altogether real, which has since been captured and given life by the times we currently find ourselves in and the people that populate such times.

It is The Great American Novel.

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