Forthcoming book probes implications of human imperfections
Brooklyn BookBeat: Novelist to Speak in Park Slope on Oct. 6
As she did in her last novel “Mislaid,” a New York Times Notable Book that was long-listed for the National Book Award, Nell Zink applies her “unhinged brilliance” (New York Times) to “Nicotine” (Ecco, Oct. 4), her new novel that observes how human imperfections can drive our ideals but undermine our best intentions. Zink will visit Park Slope’s Community Bookstore to speak about “Nicotine” on Oct. 6 (7 p.m., 143 Seventh Ave.).
A humorous novel focused on families — both the ones we’re born into and the ones we create, “Nicotine” is a story of obsession, idealism and ownership, centered around a young woman who encounters a group of smoker’s rights activists squatting in her bohemian late father’s childhood home.
Great reviews for the book are already rolling in for the book, with Kirkus reviews calling it a “Rich, rewarding tale of love, rebirth, and chewing tobacco,” and adding, “Zink does such an incredible job of depicting weirdos as real, smart, vulnerable, complicated people. Social satire with a sharp wit and a big heart.” It has been included in Fall roundups by The Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Huffington Post and New York Magazine.
The book traces the story of Penny Baker, who, while in her early 20s, recently having graduated from college, watches her 81-year-old father’s slow death with a weird combination of emotional engagement and intellectual detachment. Norm Baker, a New York Jewish psychotherapist turned New Age shaman, fathered Penny with his much younger wife, a Kogi woman from Colombia, during his years running an end-of-life clinic in the rain forest. From the start, Penny’s life has all been very forward-thinking and beyond eccentric.
Now, with her father dead, and the landlord of his Upper West Side rent-controlled apartment where Penny has been living demanding she move out immediately, Penny suddenly finds herself with no direction home. She certainly doesn’t want to move in with her flighty mother in suburban New Jersey. When one of her half-brothers, who is older than her mother, suggests she go live in their grandparents’ deserted house in Jersey City, Penny is first surprised to learn about this bit of family real estate she has never known about, then intrigued by the idea of moving in and fixing up the abandoned property for resale.
When she arrives in the marginal Jersey City neighborhood, though, Penny discovers that the house is far from abandoned. It has been occupied by a band of squatters and renamed Nicotine House — because each of the residents has an addiction to the stuff. These self-described anarchist defenders of smokers’ rights turn out to be a friendly, if quirky, bunch, welcoming Penny— who keeps her ownership rights quiet—into their makeshift family. It doesn’t hurt that Rob, the pioneering inhabitant who has rebuilt the fire-damaged house from the ground up, is seriously attractive, although Penny is dismayed to discover he is an avowed asexual.
Before long, Penny, having moved into a nearby squatters community of her own, embraces this unconventional life and these people she not too long ago would have dismissed as throwbacks. But, her alliance will pit her against her own biological family, intent on riding the gentrification wave, reclaiming Nicotine House, and selling it to developers. It is not hard for Penny to choose which side of the war she is on.
“Nell Zink is a writer of extraordinary talent and range,” says Jonathan Franzen. “Her work insistently raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know. You might not want to believe this, but her sentences and stories are so strong and convincing that you’ll have no choice.”
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