The nix, p.1
The Nix, p.1Nathan Hill
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2016 by Nathan Hill
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Wisdom Publications for permission to reprint an excerpt from In Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi, copyright © 2005, 2015 by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications (www.wisdompubs.org).
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Hill, Nathan, [date] author.
Title: The nix : a novel / Nathan Hill.
Description: First edition. | New York : Knopf, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2015046704 | ISBN 9781101946619 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781101946626 (ebook) | ISBN 9780451494252 (open market)
Subjects: LCSH: Family secrets. | Mothers and sons—Fiction. | Self-realization—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Family Life. | FICTION / Humorous.
Classification: LCC ps3608.i436 n59 2016 | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2015046704
ebook ISBN 9781101946626
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover image: Parade and Rally for Freedom, Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, April 27, 1968.
Print: Chicago History Museum
Cover design by Oliver Munday
Part One: The Packer Attacker
Part Two: Ghosts of the Old Country
Part Three: Enemy, Obstacle, Puzzle, Trap
Part Four: The House Spirit
Part Five: A Body for Each of Us
You Can Get the Girl!
Part Six: Invasive Species
Part Seven: Circle
Part Eight: Search and Seizure
Part Nine: Revolution
Part Ten: Deleveraging
Reading Group Guide
There was a king in Sāvatthi who addressed a man and asked him to round up all the persons in the city who were blind from birth. When the man had done so, the king asked the man to show the blind men an elephant. To some of the blind men he presented the head of the elephant, to some the ear, to others a tusk, the trunk, the body, a foot, the hindquarters, the tail, or the tuft at the end of the tail. And to each one, he said, “This is an elephant.”
When he reported to the king what he had done, the king went to the blind men and asked them, “Tell me, blind men, what is an elephant like?”
Those who had been shown the head of the elephant replied, “An elephant, your majesty, is just like a water jar.” Those who had been shown the ear replied, “An elephant is just like a winnowing basket.” Those who had been shown the tusk replied, “An elephant is just like a plowshare.” Those who had been shown the trunk replied, “An elephant is just like a plow pole.” Those who had been shown the body replied, “An elephant is just like a storeroom.” And each of the others likewise described the elephant in terms of the part they had been shown.
Then, saying, “An elephant is like this, an elephant is not like that! An elephant is not like this, an elephant is like that!” they fought each other with their fists.
And the king was delighted.
—Inspired Utterances of the Buddha
Late Summer 1988
IF SAMUEL HAD KNOWN his mother was leaving, he might have paid more attention. He might have listened more carefully to her, observed her more closely, written certain crucial things down. Maybe he could have acted differently, spoken differently, been a different person.
Maybe he could have been a child worth sticking around for.
But Samuel did not know his mother was leaving. He did not know she had been leaving for many months now—in secret, and in pieces. She had been removing items from the house one by one. A single dress from her closet. Then a lone photo from the album. A fork from the silverware drawer. A quilt from under the bed. Every week, she took something new. A sweater. A pair of shoes. A Christmas ornament. A book. Slowly, her presence in the house grew thinner.
She’d been at it almost a year when Samuel and his father began to sense something, a sort of instability, a puzzling and disturbing and sometimes even sinister feeling of depletion. It struck them at odd moments. They looked at the bookshelf and thought: Don’t we own more books than that? They walked by the china cabinet and felt sure something was missing. But what? They could not give it a name—this impression that life’s details were being reorganized. They didn’t understand that the reason they were no longer eating Crock-Pot meals was that the Crock-Pot was no longer in the house. If the bookshelf seemed bare, it was because she had pruned it of its poetry. If the china cabinet seemed a little vacant, it was because two plates, two bowls, and a teapot had been lifted from the collection.
They were being burglarized at a very slow pace.
“Didn’t there used to be more photos on that wall?” Samuel’s father said, standing at the foot of the stairs, squinting. “Didn’t we have that picture from the Grand Canyon up there?”
“No,” Samuel’s mother said. “We put that picture away.”
“We did? I don’t remember that.”
“It was your decision.”
“It was?” he said, befuddled. He thought he was losing his mind.
Years later, in a high-school biology class, Samuel heard a story about a certain kind of African turtle that swam across the ocean to lay its eggs in South America. Scientists could find no reason for the enormous trip. Why did the turtles do it? The leading theory was that they began doing it eons ago, when South America and Africa were still locked together. Back then, only a river might have separated the continents, and the turtles laid their eggs on the river’s far bank. But then the continents began drifting apart, and the river widened by about an inch per year, which would have been invisible to the turtles. So they kept going to the same spot, the far bank of the river, each generation swimming a tiny bit farther than the last one, and after a hundred million years of this, the river had become an ocean, and yet the turtles never noticed.
This, Samuel decided, was the manner of his mother’s departure. This was how she moved away—imperceptibly, slowly, bit by bit. She whittled down her life until the only thing left to remove was herself.
On the day she disappeared, she left the house with a single suitcase.
| PART ONE |
THE PACKER ATTACKER
Late Summer 2011
THE HEADLINE APPEARS one afternoon on several news websites almost simultaneously: GOVERNOR PACKER ATTACKED!
Television picks it up moments later, bumping into programming for a Breaking News Alert as the anchor looks gravely into the camera and says, “We’re hearing from our correspondents in Chicago that Governor Sheldon Packer has been attacked.” And that’s all anyone knows for a while, that he was attacked. And for a few dizzying minutes everyone has the same two questions: Is he dead? And: Is there video?
The first word comes from reporters on the scene, who call in with cell phones and are put on the air live. They say Packer was at the Chicago Hilton hosting a dinner and speech. Afterward, he was making his way with his entourage through Grant Park, glad-handing, baby-kissing, doing all your typical populist campaign maneuvers, when suddenly from out of the crowd a person or a group of people began to attack.
“What do you mean attack?” the anchor asks. He sits in a studio with shiny black floors and a lighting scheme of red, white, and blue. His face is smooth as cake fondant. Behind him, people at desks seem to be working. He says: “Could you describe the attack?”
“All I actually know right now,” the reporter says, “is that things were thrown.”
“That is unclear at this time.”
“Was the governor struck by any of the things? Is he injured?”
“I believe he was struck, yes.”
“Did you see the attackers? Were there many of them? Throwing the things?”
“There was a lot of confusion. And some yelling.”
“The things that were thrown, were they big things or small things?”
“I guess I would say small enough to be thrown.”
“Were they larger than baseballs, the thrown things?”
“So golf-ball-size things?”
“Maybe that’s accurate.”
“Were they sharp? Were they heavy?”
“It all happened very fast.”
“Was it premeditated? Or a conspiracy?”
“There are many questions of that sort being asked.”
A logo is made: Terror in Chicago. It whooshes to a spot next to the anchor’s ear and flaps like a flag in the wind. The news displays a map of Grant Park on a massive touch-screen television in what has become a commonplace of modern newscasting: someone on television communicating via another television, standing in front of the television and controlling the screen by pinching it with his hands and zooming in and out in super-high definition. It all looks really cool.
While they wait for new information to surface, they debate whether this incident will help or hurt the governor’s presidential chances. Help, they decide, as his name recognition is pretty low outside of a rabid conservative evangelical following who just loves what he did during his tenure as governor of Wyoming, where he banned abortion outright and required the Ten Commandments to be publicly spoken by children and teachers every morning before the Pledge of Allegiance and made English the official and only legal language of Wyoming and banned anyone not fluent in English from owning property. Also he permitted firearms in every state wildlife refuge. And he issued an executive order requiring state law to supersede federal law in all matters, a move that amounted to, according to constitutional scholars, a fiat secession of Wyoming from the United States. He wore cowboy boots. He held press conferences at his cattle ranch. He carried an actual live real gun, a revolver that dangled in a leather holster at his hip.
At the end of his one term as governor, he declared he was not running for reelection in order to focus on national priorities, and the media naturally took this to mean he was running for president. He perfected a sort of preacher-slash-cowboy pathos and an antielitist populism and found a receptive audience especially among blue-collar white conservatives put out by the current recession. He compared immigrants taking American jobs to coyotes killing livestock, and when he did this he pronounced coyotes pointedly with two syllables: ky-oats. He put an r sound in Washington so it became Warshington. He said bushed instead of tired. He said yallow for yellow and crick for creek.
Supporters said that’s just how normal, nonelite people from Wyoming talked.
His detractors loved pointing out that since the courts had struck down almost all of his Wyoming initiatives, his legislative record was effectively nil. None of that seemed to matter to the people who continued to pay for his $500-a-plate fund-raisers (which, by the way, he called “grub-downs”) and his $10,000 lecture fees and his $30 hardcover book, The Heart of a True American, loading up his “war chest,” as the reporters liked to call it, for a “future presidential run, maybe.”
And now the governor has been attacked, though nobody seems to know how he’s been attacked, what he’s been attacked with, who he’s been attacked by, or if the attack has injured him. News anchors speculate at the potential damage of taking a ball bearing or marble at high velocity right in the eye. They talk about this for a good ten minutes, with charts showing how a small mass traveling at close to sixty miles per hour could penetrate the eye’s liquid membrane. When this topic wears itself out, they break for commercials. They promote their upcoming documentary on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11: Day of Terror, Decade of War. They wait.
Then something happens to save the news from the state of idleness into which it has drifted: The anchor reappears and announces that a bystander caught the whole spectacular thing on video and has now posted it online.
And so here is the video that’s going to be shown several thousand times on television over the next week, that will collect millions of hits and become the third-most-watched internet clip this month behind the new music video from teen pop singing sensation Molly Miller for her single “You Have Got to Represent,” and a family video of a toddler laughing until he falls over. Here is what happens:
The video begins in whiteness and wind, the sound of wind blowing over an exposed microphone, then fingers fumbling over and pressing into the mic to create seashell-like swooshing sounds as the camera adjusts its aperture to the bright day and the whiteness resolves to a blue sky, indistinct unfocused greenishness that is presumably grass, and then a voice, a man’s voice loud and too close to the mic: “Is it on? I don’t know if it’s on.”
The picture comes into focus just as the man points the camera at his own feet. He says in an annoyed and exasperated way, “Is this even on? How can you tell?” And then a woman’s voice, calmer, melodious, peaceful, says, “You look at the back. What does it say on the back?” And her husband or boyfriend or whoever he is, who cannot manage to keep the picture steady, says “Would you just help me?” in this aggressive and accusatory way that’s meant to communicate that whatever problem he’s having with the camera is her responsibility. The video through all this is a jumpy, dizzying close-up of the man’s shoes. Puffy white high-tops. Extraordinarily white and new-looking. He seems to be standing on top of a picnic table. “What does it say on the back?” the woman asks.
“Where? What back?”
“On the screen.”
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