Nell Zink’s third novel to be published in two years opens with a primal scene: in ‘a landscape made almost entirely of garbage’ outside Cartagena, Colombia, a homeless thirteen-year-old girl herding pigs meets a middle-aged American in khakis. This is Norm Baker, author of The Cosmic Snake of Healing; he made his name in Brazil treating cancer patients with ayahuasca, a psychedelic tonic brewed from jungle vines. He adopts the girl, puts her through school, then – apparently at her insistence – marries her. One consequence of their strange encounter is Penny, Nicotine’s heroine. Another is that when Penny is twenty-three, Norm is an old man dying in a hospice, deserted by his older sons.
Penny knows her half-brothers are alive because she follows them on social media. One pays an unfeeling visit to the deathbed (‘Goodbye, Dad’), the other is too busy ‘hanging a major show of photographs in Jakarta’. Her mother, the pig-herder, is now a human-resources executive at a bank who says things like ‘We’re up to our necks in a merger.’ And so it falls to caring, unemployed Penny to watch her father die. She reads aloud to him. She gives him ice cubes to eat. When he goes, she imagines that ‘all her shaky bravado will crumble. She will let out her suppressed love in a fury of crying … She envisions herself a mourner in a long line of out-of-control female mourners, going back to the Greek tragedies.’
Half Jewish, half Kogi (‘the ultimate weirdo tribe’), Penny grew up in New Jersey aspiring, inevitably, to normality. She majored in business and favours white T-shirts and irony. But when Norm finally ‘stops dying’ – the dress code at his memorial service is ‘garment-dyed linen in earth tones, tooled leather, and jewelry made of rock’ – Penny learns that his enlightened powers didn’t extend to the making of wills. Her absentee brothers agree that their father’s childhood home in Jersey City, now a write-off in a bad neighbourhood, would make an ‘ideal project’ for her. This take us up to page fifty.
The rest of the novel is as arrestingly hybrid as Penny herself. The storyline could be approximated as Freudian screwball set in an anarchist squat. Sent in as ‘gentrification shock troops’, Penny finds that the place where Norm’s parents died in a fire (cigarette, bedclothes) has been taken over by smokers’ rights activists and named Nicotine. When they’re not curing tobacco leaves or eating ‘cruelty-free pastrami’, the residents attend protests, where they form a ‘Blue Bloc’, blue like smoke; they can’t march with the other protesters in case they shorten their lives.
Rather than evict them, Penny joins their madcap ménage, after her first encounter with their front man, Rob, ‘deteriorates into open flirting’. She lacks their radical credentials, but that hardly matters. Nicotine is a broad church: one member has been using it to keep her mania under control since a drug trial backfired; for another it’s a means to suicide, ‘the slowest, most decadent method I know’. They are not exactly true believers: at a march against TTIP they realise none of them knows what it stands for. Come for the left-field politics, stay for the winning cast and wild, unshockable plot. The only explicit reference to Freud comes late in the novel, but the furniture is there throughout: ‘polymorphous perversity’, buried trauma, son-on-stepmother sex. Desire and death are close bedfellows.
The strands of this improbable romp are held together by Zink’s prose, a thrilling and unfakeable blend of the learned and the streetwise (one character is unforgettably described as having ‘the morals of a razorback in the body of an Armenian king’). Its effect may be briefly anatomised. Top notes are supplied by the kind of earthy American vernacular that arouses thoughts of sympathy for her translators. Asses and butts do a tremendous amount of metonymic work: characters are stuck on them, enjoined to get off them, dress them, work them off, move them here and there, and can’t always tell them from their elbows. Penny grew up on stories of her father’s ‘Philip Roth childhood’ and her mother’s ‘crazy-ass village’, and calls the product a ‘tragicomedy with much OMG’.
But it’s not all good, clean situational fun. Zink’s prose zigzags around a core of deep feeling. Emotions are regularly likened to serrated knives (and, once, to a serrated machete). Love, for one character, ‘appears to consist of helplessness and nothing else’; another contemplates ‘how reluctantly bodies die’. Zink’s writing has the stark, sinewy beauty of a corpse observed by a loved one. This is how Penny sees Norm: ‘His skin, soft as silk and drained of muscle and fat, lies draped over his skeleton like a shroud.’
Rounding off the mix are mesmerically technical descriptions of masonry (Zink was a bricklayer in a former life). Things are made of agate, kauri wood, green polypropylene. The man with razorback morals asks someone on a date by promising ‘a wading pool with gilt tile work and art-deco nymphs cast in a marble-resin blend’. Colours are Pantone-precise: fawn, taupe, avocado. Perhaps it is natural for a novel set in a squat to be more than usually concerned with the state of the roof; the residents have, as Rob points out, ‘sweat equity’ in the place. One house fixture, a wall of buckets, is almost a character in its own right: a ‘monster’ endowed with ‘consciousness’, it is the hinge on which the story finally turns.
This attention to materials is also, I think, connected to a refusal of lyricism. Knowing how something is made rules out sentimentality as a reaction. One intimate scene is lit by ‘the pinkish glow of mercury vapor street-lamps on atmospheric haze’. If the world looks rose-coloured, blame smog. Epiphany comes in the form of an old man who tells Penny: ‘If you look reality straight in the eye, you end up a lot less confused.’ Zink’s commitment to the variousness of things is so lightly worn that such pronouncements about truth feel a little on the nose. But we’re not sure how much to trust this character. For one thing he’s stoned, which makes him prone to cliché (dope is ‘a road, not a destination’). Zink herself seems incapable of it.