Imagine all the different ways people smoke. There’s the cinematic post-coital smoke, the break-up-the-work-day smoke, the pack-a-day smoke, the one-a-day smoke, the-I-only-smoke-at-parties smoke, the hiding-it-from-everyone smoke, and the long-slow-deep-drag-of-cool-Didionesque-contemplation smoke, to name a very few.
There are dozens of descriptions of smoking in Nell Zink’s fourth book, “Nicotine,” but if the book is a metaphorical cigarette break, it is a lesser known variant: the cigarette as smoked by Rob, one of Zink’s characters who is so addicted to nicotine that he can’t get an erection and claims asexuality instead. Rob tears apart his cigarettes, pulls out the tobacco and eats it and spits — his habit is frenzied and furious and ravenous, and so is the pace and taste of the novel.
Tobacco-chewer Rob is one of several activist squatters occupying a house they’ve nicknamed Nicotine in Jersey City, N.J. It’s a part of a collective of activist-occupied abodes in the neighborhood. But the common cause that binds Rob’s housemates together isn’t AIDS or Occupy or Black Lives Matter ... it’s that they are all smokers. As smokers they are outliers in their radical community of protesters, they are looked down on and ostracized for smoking during marches — they are fringe within the fringe.
Bravo to Zink for realizing the full comedic potential of America’s rather rapid move away from its nicotine addiction, particularly during a time when everything feels so at stake, so nerve wracked and so helplessly rigged. (This novel is effortlessly current, by the way, so on target that Trump’s campaign is mentioned.) Zink expertly demonstrates how addled, anxious and alone Americans are and how in need of a drag of something they are to calm the collective nerves.
“They wouldn’t even let me smoke at a NORML smoke-in,” a Nicotine house resident called Sorry explains. “They said nicotine is a nerve poison, and they were drinking ... beer.” And so the smokers have made a safe space for themselves. Yet they bicker. Rob’s roommate,Jazz, who describes her own habit as a suicide method (“the slowest, most decadent method I know. Slower than slitting my wrists”) can’t help but criticize Rob’s way of ingesting nicotine. “[A]t least I’ll have lung cancer that spirits me away quickly,” she says to him, “while you get tumors right in your … face. How you can eat cigarettes, I’ll never understand.”
The dwellers of the smoking Shangri-la are discovered squatting by Penny, “Nicotine’s” protagonist, a recent college grad and grieving young daughter of the home’s rightful owner, Norm Baker. Norm ran a robust business as a self-appointed Shamanistic healer of sorts and had a healthy old-school hippie following but, despite his near-guru status and supposed expertise in how to live life, when he dies he leaves his family in a dissociative state and his estate in shambles. Penny is almost completely alone in tending to her ailing father in the weeks of his decline. His wife doesn’t visit him much, son Mark visits only once, son Patrick not at all.
Penny’s mother and brothers task her with investigating the condition of her dad’s neglected childhood home. She decides that she should fix it up and, perhaps, make a home for herself, but when she arrives she discovers the squatters — Rob in particular catches her ey — and instead of chasing them out she keeps her identity secret and begins to make room for herself in their community as a way of coping with her grief and her own fractured family.
Jobless, aimless and nearly homeless, it would be too easy to describe Penny as lost. Her two older brothers are both wealthy and secure in jobs. Her mother, a first-generation immigrant escaping despairing poverty in Colombia, is a powerhouse of wild achievement. But only Penny is able to be present for the reality of Norm’s death, and they treat her as the black sheep for it. As a result, Penny finds herself receiving more comfort from near strangers than she does from her family.
It would also be too easy to label “Nicotine” as a satire of activist and Occupy culture. It’s more than that, and Zink is too fond of her marginalized characters to betray them that way. What Zink is getting at is something about all people at all levels of society, insiders and outsiders, TTIP promoters and TTIP protesters — we can’t but help divide and place each other in boxes, in a way we’re all smokers criticizing the tobacco chewers. We are terrible at working together and unifying. In “Nicotine,” everyone is like-minded but labeled as something else: gay, straight, cis, femme, tomboy, babe, monster, rapist. Throughout the novel Penny is on the receiving end of naïve and uninformed perceptions about her Colombian heritage. If Zink’s young enlightened activists can’t stop but pigeonholing each other, what hope is there for the rest of humanity?
Penny’s entry into the land of Nicotine is just one aspect of this wild and nervy novel. Zink is a master of rapid character development, shifting perspectives, sex scenes and plot twists. Her descriptions of Brooklyn and Jersey City gentrification are spot-on, as is her depiction of the off-the-grid activist lifestyle. Everything happens so fast. There’s not a lot of time for reflection before something goes up in smoke. Reading it I felt nearly breathless at times, and caught myself both holding my breath and gulping for air.
Despite this asthmatic feeling, and my I hatred of smoking, “Nicotine” was so addictive it made me want to reach for a cigarette when I was done.
Devers, a writer and critic, is a contributing editor at Longreads.com and A Public Space. She lives in London.
By Nell Zink
Ecco: 304 pp., $26.99