LitStack Review: Nicotine by Nell Zink

by Sharon Browning
Author Nell Zink

Nell Zink
Ecco Publishing
Release Date:  October 6, 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-244170-6

I get it. Not all books are going to appeal to all people. But I have to admit, I don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to Nell Zink’s latest novel, Nicotine.

Oh, it’s pleasant enough. Quirky enough, poignant enough, pithy enough. It’s not bad; I didn’t have to force myself to read it. It just… didn’t go anywhere.

Nicotine is the story of Penny Baker, a young woman who, after the death of her father, finds herself befriending a group of anarchists who are squatting in an abandoned house (that her family actually owns) in Jersey City – she would have moved in with them had there been a room available. The house is part of a network of abandoned buildings, each one focusing on a specific cause. In this case, the cause is smokers’ rights (mostly because everyone in the house uses tobacco); therefore, the name of the house is Nicotine.

Of course, there’s much more to the story than this. Penny’s family, for one. Her father was a psychedelic healer with an almost cult-like status, her mother was plucked from the slums of Cartagena, Columbia. Her step-brothers from her dad’s previous marriage are older than her mom; one is a virtual non-entity, the other is handsome, successful and cruel. Early in the novel we see that Penny is virtually the sole witness to her father’s slow and demoralizing death, first in a hospital and then a hospice; she struggles to deal with this experience throughout the book.

Solid subject matter there.

The folks at Nicotine are interesting, as well: a poet, an artist, a bicycle mechanic, a drug trial survivor, an unemployed “working stiff”. Penny gets involved with all of them at one level or another; their relationships are the backbone of the book. Three of them – Rob, Sorry and Jazz – are extremely well detailed; there are times when we are hypnotized by their discussions, their motivations, their actions. Supporting characters are also colorful and fresh, the levity and zing they add keeps the story from becoming too myopic.

Likewise, the idea of community is a major thread throughout the narrative, as is how easily that thread can unravel. Penny’s tentative families (biological and accumulated), the New Age hippie community of Penny’s upbringing, the committed yet sometimes peevish anarchist community – all give us insight into Nicotine’s ethos and pathos.

Again, pretty solid stuff.

In fact, there are so many well-realized moving parts in Nicotine that it’s amazing how little forward progress there is. Well built up dramatic climaxes nudge actions but don’t bring about lasting change. Major reveals don’t amount to much. Characters overcome daunting obstacles, but then pretty much pick up where they left off. There are changes of scene, but not of substance.

For instance, when Penny is unexpectedly asked to speak at the opening of a community center dedicated to her late father, she instead gets high and can barely string together a cohesive sentence let alone share any heartfelt remembrances.  This is fine, except there are no consequences to her lackluster performance, which renders the scene emotionally empty. Unfortunately, it feels like a squandered opportunity rather than a statement on emotional detachment.

Maybe that’s Ms. Zink’s intention with Nicotine, to make it an organic story rather than one that buys into literary convention. Perhaps Nicotine is the bookish equivalent of a still life painting, ultra-realistic and showing great creative skill, full of dynamic colors and shapes; a study on what is rather than a progression from what was to what is to what may be. If that is the case, then so be it.

There certainly is a lot to “look at” in Nicotine. It is well written and engaging to the senses. Just don’t expect it to transcend its structure or transport you anywhere – unless you’re okay with taking a journey that pretty much drops you off where you started.

~ Sharon Browning

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