'Nicotine': A Riotous Collision Between Squatters and an Eccentric Family
Nell Zink's irrepressible humor and intelligence makes Nicotine a thrilling read.
Length: 288 Pages
Author: Nell Zink
Publication date: 2016-10
With Nicotine, her third novel in three years, Nell Zink’s madcap, all-encompassing satiric voice has become one of the most distinct in American fiction. Just as she seems to have snuck into the literary scene from the margins after a peripatetic 50 years, her insights on big issues sneak up and catch the reader off-guard; instead of having characters state their views in obvious ways, Zink tosses off quips and one-liners of such wit and diversity that she’s able to convey a whole worldview through asides without losing the plot’s sense of urgency and propulsion. In Nicotine, Zink is working in a more traditional novel mode after the stream of consciousness insanity of The Wallcreeper and the breakneck farce of Mislaid, and hones her focus on one family, one house, and their chaotic intermingling.
The protagonist, 20-something Penny Baker, is the product of a union between “neo-shamanist” leader Norman Baker, originally a Jew from Jersey City, and Amalia, a decades younger Kogi tribeswoman from Columbia who, since meeting Norm, has gone from fighting feral pigs at a dump to a high level HR job at an investment bank. After two brief episodes in the past to develop the strange dynamics of the Baker clan, which also includes half-brothers Matt and Patrick who are roughly Amalia’s age, Zink brings us to the present day, where Penny is watching her father die slowly and painfully.
Zink has never shied away from darker subjects (the very first sentence of The Wallcreeper includes a miscarriage) but in her earlier works the pace is so quick and the tone so antic that there isn’t much weight to the darkness. While Zink hasn’t suddenly turned to melodrama with Nicotine, Norm’s death and Penny’s subsequent grief is given full freight and informs the entirety of the novel. Not only does Norm’s death leave Penny rudderless, it also dissolves her lease and leaves her homeless.
Penny discovers that Norm’s childhood home still belongs to the family, even though Norm left it alone because his parents died in a tragic fire. When Penny investigates, she finds the house has been reclaimed and repaired by squatters and christened Nicotine, a home for activists and anarchists that share a love of smoking. Penny immediately takes a liking to the inhabitants; asexual dreamboat Rob, Kurdish “sex goddess” Jazz, earnest Anka, sardonic Sorry, and mysterious Tony. They initiate her into the squatter lifestyle and Penny is soon living rent-free in a affiliated house. Conflict comes in the form of Penny’s half-brother Matt, the hardheaded capitalist correction his father Norm, who wants to divide the house into rental units and flip it, until he develops an infatuation for Jazz that leads them both to irrational extremes and to a remaking of the house.
While the novel seems at first to be setting up a clearly defined confrontation of values between Norm’s capitalist, legal heirs and the squatters, who can loosely be called his spiritual heirs, with Penny in the middle, Zink does everything she can to muddy these waters. In Zink’s world, people rarely fit neatly into labels; the world is not divided into separate camps of anarchists and capitalists, but rather those polarities exist within individuals who must navigate those warring impulses depending on their situation in life. For example, Amalia’s job at an investment bank and naked desire to make money coexists with some decidedly non-Western notions that all property is theft.
Meanwhile, the Millenial characters are all avowed leftists, yet first and foremost they are pragmatists, doing whatever is necessary to simply survive. Some recent depictions of anarchists or activists view them with stifling seriousness (such as Justin Taylor’s ) but in Zink’s world, their ideology is fluid and just one of many impulses that might drive someone to action, on an equal footing with hunger, lust, boredom, or spite. The result is a novel that is brimming with ideas, but always feels visceral rather than intellectual -- both the author and her characters seem to be charging ahead instinctually until they reach truly unexpected places, such as a shootout that leaves the house flooded with feces.
Yet even as Nicotine erupts into Marx Brothers-esque chaos, the action is always grounded by Penny. As good as Zink’s style can be, her greatest achievement here is creating such a believable and empathetic heroine capable of speaking to the anxieties of her generation. Penny is the inheritor of a messy legacy, uncertain of her place in the world, subject to universal fears and desires, and trying to make the best of imperfect options and though she and her friends lead improbably charmed lives, they are authentic in their grappling with the complex morality of American life today.