John Irving once described himself as “more wrestler than writer.” He wasn’t so much affirming his lifelong allegiance to a favorite sport as suggesting that, in his five decades as a novelist, he has compensated for a lack of virtuosity through discipline, mental agility and a practiced ability to penetrate language’s defenses. Though Irving is probably underestimating his considerable gifts as a storyteller, he’s never made the novelist’s craft look as easy as other writers in his literary weight class. Any novelist who needs to know not only how his story ends but the precise wording of its last sentence before he can write anything else is probably cursed to wrestle with writing to the bitter end.
Nell Zink’s gift for revealing character through unsettling and comic sexual situations in taut prose evokes Irving’s two pre-Garp minor masterpieces, The 158-Pound Marriage and The Water-Method Man. Her new novel, Nicotine, like Irving’s latest, coincidentally begins with an adolescent orphan living in a Latin American garbage dump. But the similarities end there, by all appearances, which would seem to cast Irving and Zink on opposite sides of the wrestler-virtuoso divide. Nicotine and Zink’s breakthrough novel, Mislaid, may indeed have been composed with as much applied method and dogged determination as Irving’s. But something in the onward rush and the effortless elegance of Zink’s fast-flowing prose suggest that these stories come to her fully formed and emerge as fast as she can type them. As the cleverly plotted Mislaid unfolds with entrancing unpredictability, Zink makes it look so easy you can imagine she’s as surprised as you are by where the story goes.
Structurally looser and less linear than Mislaid, Nicotine’s action swirls around the heirs and real estate holdings of hippie shaman Norm Baker, who dies following a protracted hospice stay early on in the book. Nicotine mostly follows the adventures of Norm’s 23-ish, recently MBA’d daughter Penny as she attempts to restart her life after her father’s drawn-out death throes. Entrusted by her detached South American mother and her cynical half-brothers to restore the derelict Jersey City house where her father grew up, Penny stumbles into the peculiar demimonde of North Jersey anarchist squatters, loosely affiliated in a network of co-op houses known as Community Housing Action (CHA).
The one prerequisite for residency in these houses—including her grandparents’ abandoned house, dubbed “Nicotine” after the tobacco consumers who live there—is that the co-op members practice activism as their primary occupation. But Penny finds little in the way of wide-eyed idealism or passionate political commitment among the CHA squatters she encounters, though most like to argue and invent hashtags. As the first Nicotine resident Penny meets explains, “The houses all have themes. Some are pretty trivial—bicycle activists like me, tree tenders, you know, small-time BS—and some are big mainstream political issues like environmental stuff, different health issues, AIDS and TB and whatever.”
Penny meets an assortment of intriguing characters: a mysteriously asexual bicycle mechanic named Rob who has provisionally fixed the house’s burned-out roof; a chubby, clinically depressed woman named Sorry whose chain-smoking keeps her precarious health in balance; and a self-scarring, uncannily erotic Kurdish-American poet named Jazz who lives in Nicotine’s rooftop greenhouse. Short on big-issue activism but long on identity politics and ostracized-smoker indignation, Nicotine’s residents take to Penny immediately. They draw her into the CHA world, and their instant camaraderie inspires her to delay her plans to kick out the squatters, though her unsentimental mother and her industrialist older brother have other ideas.
For as long as she can, Penny travels incognito among her new friends, not divulging her family’s claim on the property. She embarks on a genuine search for community, companionship and love. Although with Zink’s incisive understanding of the ways people see the world not as it is but as they are, Penny maintains a canny suspicion of the people she meets and a studied awareness of how they perceive her as a half-Kogi, half-Jewish undercover rich girl: “She’s a short brown woman in athletic socks, carrying her purse in a plastic bag. To racists, a higher primate. To lefties, a Person of Color. To absolutely no one, the would-be heiress to the property.”
The advance press on Nicotine indicated that Zink drew on her own experiences years ago in New Jersey co-op housing to capture the atmosphere of CHA squats. Indeed, her eye for environmental detail and the residents’ rhetorical shortcomings and half-assed, ennui-addled commitments is sharp, though that sort of laser-focused insight should come as no surprise to readers of Mislaid or Zink’s first book, The Wallcreeper.
Another benefit of Zink’s ability to crank out literary novels at a pulp writer’s pace (two novels published in 2015, Nicotine and two paired novellas dropped this week) is that this present-tense novel feels like it’s happening right now. Nicotine intermingles off-hand references to the current election cycle and the Internet of Things with a smattering of still-smoking #hashtags. And Zink makes it look effortless—Nicotine is far from a techno-centric book and only tangentially a political one.
Even with its cataclysmic sexual mismatches, short bursts of violence and a broadly comic comeuppance, Nicotine doesn’t deliver the tightly plotted power of Mislaid’s explosive last act. But it does take Penny and others to surprising and satisfying new places.
Perhaps uncharacteristically (if any writing trend from an author with only two previous books can properly be described as “uncharacteristic”), Zink even digresses into an Irving-like, meta-wrestling with the storyteller’s craft. These ruminations supply a letter-perfect explanation of why her precise prose works so well: “It’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems… It’s a matter of signal-to-noise ratio. Any story you tell has to be all signal.” Said and done.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.