'Nicotine': A Riotous Collision Between Squatters and an Eccentric Family

Nell Zink's irrepressible humor and intelligence makes Nicotine a thrilling read.


Publisher: Ecco
Length: 288 Pages
Author: Nell Zink
Price: $26.99
Format: Hardcover
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.





Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.


Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.


That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.


Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.


Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.


Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnorak' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.


Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings Team for Wonderfully Sparse "Where Or When" (premiere)

Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings' "Where Or When" is a wonderfully understated performance that walks the line between pop and jazz.


Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.