Those dismayed by the marked lack of funny, cerebral works of contemporary literature being produced on American soil often turn abroad, since writers in other languages seem less likely to believe that worthy books can’t be playful. Those readers will likely be thrilled by “Nicotine,” a farce set primarily in New Jersey, written by American ex-pat and current Berliner Nell Zink, bursting with the intelligence and fun of things written elsewhere, with the added bonus of cultural references that do not require additional research.
“The Wallcreeper,” her first book, made a splash for exhibiting the same wit and smarts that make “Nicotine” a wonderful novel. Her second, “Mislaid,” made the National Book Award longlist for the same reason. Her third has been released simultaneously with “Private Novelist,” a collection of two early, as-yet-unpublished novellas. This is a heck of a lot of fanfare for a writer nobody had heard of two years ago — and very well-deserved.
“Nicotine” centers on the family of one Norman Baker, a Jewish boomer from New Jersey who, after doctoral training at Columbia, goes on to become a shaman and marry (when she is of age) a child he finds in a third-world garbage dump. When Norm dies, recent college graduate Penny, the product of this union and the novel’s hero, is kicked out of Norm’s rent-controlled apartment and assigned to prepare his vacant childhood home, located in a now-derelict part of Jersey City, to become an investment property for her surviving family members to sell and split the proceeds. Penny soon discovers the house has been taken over by anarchist squatters who’ve banded together under the common cause of living in a place where they can smoke with abandon. They call the squat Nicotine.
The various romantic entanglements of the Nicotine residents — all young, all smart, all politically motivated — drive the novel’s plot. Penny soon falls for Rob, the hunky, sexually confounding bike mechanic who rehabbed the house. Complicating matters is sexy poet Jasmine, Rob’s best friend and rumored love interest. A host of secondary characters — artists, bohemians, poseurs, jerks—round out the cast, delivering one-liners and allowing Zink to poke fun at a range of young activist types. When a climate change action goes awry, for instance, and Penny worries about the fate of an injured participant, one of her cohort dismisses Penny’s concerns.
“It’s no big deal,” she says. “She’ll spend the rest of her life as a cauldron of seething rage, and no mainstream citizen will ever take her seriously again as long as she lives. But she’ll bounce back, unless she ends up with slurred speech and a limp. Then her media career can really take off.” “And for what?” Penny responds. “The . . . climate?’’
These aren’t the only types in her sights. Equally razzed are Norm’s followers, a ragtag bunch of elderly hippies yet to be disabused of ’60s notions of worthy pursuits, like pot, ritual chanting, and drum circles. If the young seem confused about their political aims, the inchoate mess the followers create at Norm’s memorial make the old seem even more so. Worst of all is Penny’s brother Matt, a free-marketeer and priapic demigod in the fashion of James Spader in “Pretty in Pink.”
All told, this is a book in which nobody seems to know what he or she is doing. Political actions — a protest, the formation of a squat — are not only badly organized, but fall victim to the vagaries of technology, sexual desire, and murky, frequently icky personal motivations. One of the walls of Nicotine is supported by sealed buckets of human waste. Is this a metaphor? It certainly is.
Zink’s loving satirization of the Left might be badly received in today’s prickly political climate. But make no mistake: “Nicotine” isn’t some Lionel Shriver-style rant against diversity or a Jonathan Franzen-ish screed against technology. The characters Zink has created, although frequently self-centered and bumbling, are both too intentionally one-dimensional and too well- meaning to inspire anything but sympathy and approximately a million eye-rolls — very much like life!
As irreverent as the novel may be, Penny’s grief over her father’s death feels sacred, since it’s almost entirely immune from the noise of smartphones and horniness. Zink writes scenes of mourning with a straight face, and movingly to boot, deploying as much sincerity as do her smokers when justifying the act of hastening their own demise.
A death-centered novel such as this can’t help but feel serious, even if it sometimes feels deliberately inconsequential. Whatever its intent, the tension between noise and meaning makes for an incredibly lively read.
By Nell Zink
Ecco, 288 pp., $26.99
Eugenia Williamson, a Chicago writer and editor, can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.