The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 3 January 2017


by Nell Zink

It has been said of play writing that if you introduce a gun in the first act, it has to go off by the third. So it follows, in novel writing, that if you introduce a stack of buckets full of fermenting fecal matter in the first act (or second), something hideous has to happen by the end of the book. Nell Zink gets this, but the inevitable sticky mess is more or less beside the point of this erratic, jittery story of twenty-first century domestic chaos and edge-condition anarchy.

And so the novel opens as we meet young Amalia, scavenging off of a garbage heap in Colombia, when she meets with Norm Baker, a new age healer who adopts her and takes her home. Suddenly, it is years later, and Amalia's daughter is caring for Norm as he dies a slow death in hospice care. Already, we are uncertain what the story is to be about while we, and young Penny Baker, endure a brutally explicit and drawn-out death scene. It turns out that Penny's father left a pretty healthy inherintance, which includes a large house in Jersey City. When Penny is evicted from Norm's New York City apartment, attempts to move in to that old house, she finds it already occupied by four anarchists, members of an extended group of squatters living in abandoned houses in this depressed community. The squatters identify as smokers, activists who've been forced to live on the edge of the activist community that is tolerant of anything but smoking. They've named their squat Nicotine.

Here, about a third of the way through the book, the story finally hits the ground. But Zink never seems to settle on what the book is about. Penny continues to grieve for her father, but his death quickly falls into the background. The residents of Nicotine all have their personal issues. Indeed, they're all a bit self-absorbed and they all suffer from self-loathing which tends to be expressed in lots of ill-advised sexual encounters. Penny falls in love with Rob, and takes it as a personal project to break his asexual tendencies. Vibrant young Jazz falls for Penny's crazy brother Matt, who is turned on by violent sex and can't seem to settle on his own attitude toward Nicotine. There are numerous other players and almost all of them suffer from the same kind of ineffectual activism and random minor acts of self destruction.

Zink's prose is engaging and fast-moving, but it never seems to settle on what the story is supposed to be about. Perhaps that very structure, or lack thereof, is meant to evoke the random nature of the lives depicted. Perhaps this is all meant to be a story for the times, a chaotic world of ambivalent politics and millennial anxiety. But that makes for rough going for the reader. The punch line seems to be missing in the jittery chaos in which Penny lives, even if her life path has the potential to swing her far back into conventional pursuits.

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