Review: Novelist Nell Zink takes on Sept. 11 in ‘Doxology’
“This changes everything.” That’s the pronouncement on Sept. 11, 2001, by a colleague of Pamela Bailey, a longtime New Yorker, formerly obsessed with punk stalwart Ian MacKaye; a mother, wife, young woman who ran away from D.C. at age 17; and the center of a sweeping new novel by the bright and irresistible fiction writer Nell Zink.
Watching the skin of each tower peel away, Pam is “sort of surprised and sort of not. Even the attack itself was sort of surprising and sort of not. Who knew they had the nerve, and why did it take them so long?”
A novel can take a few months to write or maybe several years or even a decade or more. But the period of time any book actually concerns? That can be a single day in Ireland, or a few electrifying days in Paris or a couple weeks in Hong Kong. But another kind of book covers many cities and many years — declarations of war and mass death and a quiet birth and much more, all of which flow forth in Zink’s powerful fifth book, “Doxology.”
Another main character is New York City, where Pam, having left her controlling parents (her dad, Edgar, is a defense contractor in Washington, D.C) “emerged to the sidewalk at Forty-First Street and Eight Avenue. Street wisdom acquired in downtown D.C. told her it was not a place she needed to be spending time. She saw whores with recently hit faces.” It’s hard not to root for her. “She was a leggy stranger in black jeans and a men’s V-neck undershirt, with a backpack and sleepover bag, 17 years old, lost, female, and invisible. She was exactly where she wanted to be.”
Then Pam meets Joe Harris. “You are quite the mutant,” she tells him. But Joe takes hold of her arm, and much more. He’s a borderline slur of a character, mentally disabled, simultaneously deeply simplistic and yet fantastically interesting. The manager of the cafe that semi-employs him likes Joe “because he was good for business, always rhapsodizing about fries and soda in a way that made them sound exponentially more wonderful than chips and tap water, plus he never stole.” The man strums his bass guitar and writes a song every day and talks to pigeons and makes friends with the homeless in Washington Square and then he gets an amp. “I never knew this knob did anything,” he says, discovering his own volume.
Pam promptly falls in love with Joe’s friend Daniel. “I should get a pregnancy test,” she concludes soon after. “Maybe it’s just ovarian cancer?” They have a baby named Flora and a record label and then Joe signs with a major.
The downfall of Joe, unlikely rock star, is the private tragedy of a book with big ambitions, and in some ways Joe’s demise serves as a tidy counterbalance to the weighty public fulcrum of 9/11, which the first half of the book spends a bit of intellectual capital building toward. After all the fame and unlikely fortune and the effect Joe’s success exerts on Pam’s small family, it’s upsetting how Joe is tended to, finally, by his evil groupie-ingenue: “She dumped cold water on Joe. She laid his leather jacket over his wet, scary face. She listened to the busy signals of 9-1-1 on speakerphone.” Joe’s worst moment is ours — his first shot of heroin is on 9/11 — and just as the ingenue skulks away from a stiffening man-as-metaphor, the rest of the world doesn’t know what to say or do. His friend gone, his city in flames, Daniel observes, helplessly: “There was no need to make anybody cry by saying anything true.” The death of one man stands in for how badly we deal with the death of nearly 3,000.
In previous novels, such as her outstanding debut, “Wallcreeper,” Zink could merrily explode a weird subculture and expose its ugliness and beauty. (Birdwatching! American expats in Switzerland!) But in this book, she balances this specificity (Coding! Punk rock! D.C. neighborhoods!) in the service of what feels like a larger goal.
One small problem, especially in the first half, is that everyone sounds the same. Example: “Pam’s the worst lead guitar player in the universe,” Joe says. “Her fingers move like it’s freezing out and she lost her mittens. But in [our new band] she plays massive power chords she knows how to play, and I play the tunes.” All of the main characters deploy the same biting and bizarre wit.
In any case, the book expands. Baby Flora is now in elementary school, and the ghastly horrors of falling towers lead to her hasty installation into a D.C. private school, from which she will never fully escape. The plot gets ungainly. For one thing, Flora is asked to do so much. She’s a lesson to her grandparents in how to be more respectful. Pam’s mother, Ginger, realizes she had driven her daughter away all those years ago, partly by thinking of her “as a worthy adversary.” Seeing Flora “so puny and gullible” makes this sweet grandma aware of a “past depravity,” sensing for the first time “the depths of her subjection to a culture of violence.” A whole novel could be hung on that furniture, but this is just one of about a dozen delicious subplots. Flora goes to college and visits Africa and dates a big-time Democratic fixer. Then she gets pregnant and stumps in Pennsylvania for Jill Stein, where she finds herself in bed with the guy running ops for Hillary Clinton.
Even if the book tries to do too much, the undeniable result is how much a reader will care about this girl and her dad and the mom and those grandparents. In the opening scenes, Pam makes a choice. Then she and Daniel make another set of decisions. Suddenly Flora is faced with the starkest of them all, and we wonder: Will she settle for the safe route, or the path of idealism, and will she even get to decide? Trump, late-stage capitalism, the way in which anyone with a heart who’s paying attention would conclude socialism: For Flora, navigating this morass, “She wanted to minimize badness; she wanted to minimize wrongness. But goodness and rightness were not the same thing.”
At a moment when things are most dire, in the book and maybe in our own lives, a creaky but noble book brings us close to present day and concludes with an enviable familial quietude, and perhaps a small bit of implied advice. “There was no sound but shallow breathing, beating hearts, and a few distant sirens. Downstairs, Ginger lowered the blinds and sat down to nap in an easy chair.” Flora’s grandfather Edgar is sorting through hardware, trying to make a Geiger counter. Pam? She’s in the kitchen, reading the newspaper.
Ecco; 416 pp., $27.99
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”
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