book review

Debut Novel Review: The Nix by Nathan Hill

The Nix is the first book that I am featuring on my debut novel review because, to put it plainly, I adore this book, easily one of my five favorite books of all time.  When I read The Nix, I had just read in succession, three books that were on the headlines for getting million-dollar advances.  All these three novels  had good writing and were bombastic enough to hold my attention. But the last one (about the devastating fall out after an adulterous husband’s kids accidentally read his incriminating emails from his mistress) left me scratching my head and screeching, “what the hell is going on?” both in reference to the novel and the super advance.


The Nix is Nathan Hill’s 620-page debut novel about Samuel Anderson-Andresen, a professor, writer and gamer.  (To my fellow writers, you heard that right, “620 pages” and “debut novel” in the same sentence) Samuel is only marginally successful in one of those three endeavors. Your guess as to which one is correct.  The big pebble in his existential shoe was the departure of his mother, Faye,  from his and  his father’s life when he was a young boy.  This departure was the heart of the book’s prologue and people, this is one prologue that IMHO was done right (the other one being Jane Harper’s The Dry).

His mother resurfaced in his life in a manner most bizarre.  Faye’s act of throwing a stone at a Trump-like political figure, Sheldon Packer was caught on video that became viral and which earned her the title “Packer Attacker”.  Samuel is now being badgered by two people to write about his mother; his publisher , to capitalize on the mother’s notoriety and his mother’s lawyer, to paint a positive picture of Faye that will be used to exonerate her.

The process of writing about his mother took Samuel, and the readers, on a journey of discovering  secrets about Faye and inevitably, about Samuel himself.  

I’m easily seduced by books. Give me good writing and interesting characters and I would be willing to pay money and hours of attention. And then there are books that not only seduce but subsume. The Nix is one of the latter. I inhaled the 620 page tome in one sitting (more like lying down on my bed and giving my daughter $30 to buy pizza for dinner so I won’t be disturbed for the rest of the night) because I just can’t bear not knowing what happens next.

I read the Nix in late 2016, the year it came out.  Nathan Hill’s prose was contemporary in tone, combining plain words with profound thought to jolting effect . See here –

“Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s. ” 

And here-

“That, paradoxically, narrowing her concerns had made her more capable of love and generosity and empathy and, yes, even peace and justice. It was the difference between loving something out of duty—because the movement required it of you—and loving something you actually loved. Love—real, genuine, unasked-for love—made room for more of itself, it turned out. Love, when freely given, duplicates and multiplies.”

The heart of The Nix, and most of excellent fiction really, is its unforgettable characters. Nathan created many detours by introducing tangential story lines that zoomed in secondary character’s stories. Three years and more than a hundred books later,  I can still remember with clarity super gamer Pwnage, the twins Bishop and Bethany, bad-ass Alice, cop and later judge Charlie Brown, Guy Periwinkle. And of course, Laura, Samuel’s student who, alone, was worth the price of admission.

I’m 92% certain that Nathan Hill had this notebook  that he’d kept at all times in his person where he’d written these nuggets of wisdom that came to him while driving his wife to her yoga class or while waiting for Breaking Bad to come back from commercial. I could see him crafting these characters in his head (or in his notebook) one by one and assigning them distinct personalities and physical attributes, feeding them lines which these characters then spit back out in memorable dialogue on the page.

Here are a few of my favourite lines:

“But you cannot endure this world alone, and the more Samuel’s written his book, the more he’s realized how wrong he was. Because if you see people as enemies or obstacles or traps, you will be at constant war with them and with yourself. Whereas if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar.” 

“if you make the easy choice every day, then it becomes a pattern, and your patterns become your life.” 

“Blaming his students for being uninspired was so much easier than doing the work required to inspire them.” 

“Because one thing she’s learned through all this is that if a new beginning is really new, it will feel like a crisis. Any real change should make you feel, at first, afraid. If you’re not afraid of it, then it’s not real change.” 


I’ve read a lot of reviews that were hyperbolic in their admiration for the book though a few complained of its length and that it could have done with some or a lot of excision. The author admitted to throwing every styling, gimmick, literary device and fun story idea that he had into the book and made sure they stayed. Since Nathan Hill wrote the novel in ten years, 620 pages sound, to me, a reasonable page count to capture ten years’ worth of  scribbling that led to this fantastic novel.

Good thing for me because a few paragraphs into the prologue, I was thankful that the novel was 620 pages long.  And this is not hyperbole.

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