Nicotine by Nell Zink, book review: Excruciatingly visceral but sharply humorous too

Zink’s distinctive verve is as mesmerising as ever in her third book

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The Independent Culture

Penny is an unemployed business major whose first experience of the “real world” is to watch her father Norm die a slow death. It’s a Kafkaesque ordeal – “No painkillers because they hasten death, and no fluids because they prolong life” – told with excruciating, often uncomfortably visceral detail, but Nell Zink fashions some of her sharpest humour out of such tragedy. Returning to her rent-controlled Manhattan apartment (the lease of which is in Norm’s name) the day after he passes, Penny discovers she’s already been given notice. “I told no one. I was too grieving,” her mother Amalia says when Penny calls to ask how the news has travelled so fast. “But Facebook maybe? I updated my status to single. Maybe I am friends with somebody in your building?”

The family – Amalia (born into the Kogi tribe, found by Norm on a rubbish dump in Cartagena when she was 13 years old; first he adopted her, later he married her), and Penny’s half-brothers Matt and Patrick (older than their stepmother) – decide she should move into Norm’s old childhood home in Jersey City. When Penny goes to investigate she finds the house inhabited by a band of anarchist squatters (translation: “ineffectual live and let live pseudo-revolutionaries”) united in their addiction to the last taboo: tobacco. As one points out, any kind of drug abuse goes these days, “But smoke a cigarette, and you’re on everybody’s shit list.”

Norm was a Jewish Shamanist pushing ayahuasca trips long before they became de rigueur in Brooklyn, his acolytes “old-school hippies – rude, furious, elderly sensualists channeling Falstaff with all their might while their wives read Isabel Allende” (have you ever read such a perfect description?). As such, Penny’s life has never been conventional, so she fits right in. She’s also got her eye on the house’s resident hunk, Rob. He professes to be asexual, but she’s not letting a little thing like that put her off – Norm believed that it’s “the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems”, and much of the book is about grappling with this.

Nicotine is Zink’s third book (fourth if you count Private Novelist, coming out in tandem in the US, a rather complicated metafictional project I don’t have enough space to explain, all I’ll say is if you’re a fan of her unique brand of zany, it’s worth getting hold of a copy), and it confirms her preoccupation with marginalised people living off-the-grid in one way or another. First there was Tiffany the eco-terrorist in The Wallcreeper, followed thereafter by the mother-daughter duo living incognito in Mislaid, a story of racial transgression that read like a Shakespearean comedy. The strongest echoes in Nicotine are of the latter: tricky family entanglements, and daring to go there when it comes to cultural difference. “I get tired of hearing people say indigenous people should practice their folkways,” rants Penny. “White people don’t have that responsibility, do they?” Slightly less frenzied but still pretty manic by the standards of most narratives, Nicotine proves Zink’s distinctive verve as mesmerising as ever.

Out 6 October for £14.99, published by Fourth Estate