The Nix big thing

First-time author Nathan Hill (above) based his book heavily on his experiences.
First-time author Nathan Hill (above) based his book heavily on his experiences.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Author Nathan Hill's The Nix has been compared with works by acclaimed authors such as Charles Dickens

NEW YORK • Nathan Hill's literary career almost ended before it started.

Like so many optimistic young Master of Fine Arts graduates, he moved to New York City in his 20s with a hard drive full of short stories, hoping to land an agent and a publisher.

His early overtures to literary agents brought rejections. Then, one day in summer 2004, when he was moving out of a house in Queens where he lived with 11 other guys, his car was broken into. He lost all of his possessions, including his computer and his back-up drive. All of his work-in-progress vanished.

He sulked for a while and played lots of World Of Warcraft, an online fantasy game. Eventually, though, he started something new.

The story began as a family drama about an estranged mother and son, but over the years, it morphed into a sprawling tale about politics, online gaming, academia, Norwegian mythology, social media, the Occupy Wall Street protests and the 1960s counterculture.

Now, 12 years later, that novel, The Nix, is being published by Alfred A. Knopf tomorrow. Hill finally seems poised to break out as a major literary talent.

Booksellers and critics have rallied around the novel. Publication rights have sold in 16 countries, often at heated auctions, a rarity for a first-time author. Barnes & Noble highlighted The Nix as one of the best new novels of the summer.

A critic for Booklist called The Nix an "engrossing, skewering and preternaturally timely tale" and compared it with works by Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, Tom Wolfe and John Irving.

Irving, in turn, compared The Nix with works by Charles Dickens and other 19th-century masters.

"It's an ambitious novel without ever being pretentious," the writer said in an interview, noting that he could not remember the last time a debut novel had made such a strong impression on him. "There's a Dickensian range between stuff that's genuinely sad, upsetting and disturbing with stuff that is genuinely comedic."

The Nix centres on a washed-up writer named Samuel Andresen- Anderson, who, after failing to live up to his early promise, has succumbed to a soul-crushing job as an adjunct professor of literature in a Chicago suburb.

To escape the suffocating sense of failure, Samuel spends 40 hours a week playing the role of Dodger the Elven Thief in an online game called World Of Elfscape.

He is pulled back into his traumatic past when he learns that his mother, Faye, who abandoned the family when he was 11, faces assault charges for throwing rocks at a politician. Television news reports cite her record from her days as a 1960s radical in Chicago, which includes an arrest for prostitution. Determined to learn why his mother disappeared, Samuel enlists his Elfscape buddy Pwnage, whose savant- like video-game skills have made him an online celebrity, to help piece together Faye's history.

Hill - a 40-year-old who lives in Naples, Florida, where his wife is a bassoonist for the Naples Philharmonic - drew on his experience as a struggling writer, an obsessive online gamer and an occasionally jaded English professor.

He pilfered so much from his life that he had to reassure his mother that Faye was not based on her.

Breaking into the New York literary world was tougher than he had expected. His short-story collection was turned down by 38 literary agents.

"I was writing to impress people and it turns out that when you do that, you write unimpressive prose," he said.

He described the messy process of writing and researching The Nix as "three years of writing, six years of research and floundering".

One result of his meandering process is that the novel bears almost no resemblance to the story he started working on 12 years ago - a pointed examination of the culture wars and the polarisation of American politics through a mother and son's relationship.

"My first impulse was to write a heavy-handed political novel. Then, I realised at some point, that's just rude," Hill said. "At the very least, it's better manners to show people a good time."

NEW YORK TIMES

•The Nix is available at Amazon.com for US$18.98 (S$25.79).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2016, with the headline 'The Nix big thing'. Print Edition | Subscribe