Review by Mark Palm.
As I grow old, ( I am not going to bullshit you by saying older), I wonder if I am starting to lose my edge. It’s inevitable, right? First you’re reading Milan Kundera in a noisy bar , sipping whiskey with an pack of unfiltered Camels on the table while you argue with your friends about who is Postmodernist and who is Post-Postmodernist, then someone pulls the rug out and it’s a couple of decades later and it’s all tea and naps and Agatha Christie.
Well, maybe it’s not that bad. But when I heard about Nicotine, by Zell Fink, I felt like I was being issued a challenge. The buzz was that it was weird. Well, it is weird, but not Finnegan’s Wake or The Dictionary of the Khazars weird. It has some unusual situations, and some odd characters, but it’s quite accessible, and most importantly, it’s also very good.
To peel away the complications, and to let you discover Ms. Zink’s gift for invention for yourself, I’ll break down the plot.
Penny is a young college graduate who is coming to terms with the death of her father, whom she nursed for months thru his long sickness. Her very unusual family is struggling to divide up her father’s possessions, and Penny, recently evicted from her NYC apartment, decides to look after her father’s run-down childhood home in New Jersey. To her surprise she finds that the house is not empty, but is occupied by a varied group of friendly anarchist squatters, all of whom use tobacco. They have dubbed the house Nicotine. Penny quickly befriends this unusual group, and becomes a part of their larger community, a large ragtag group of protesters, activists and free spirits, all content , or seemingly content, to live off of the grid and go their own way outside of the usual system. As Penny becomes more involved with this fringe society she finds herself entangled in a myriad of relationships, especially Rob, an asexual man with whom she fall in love.
There is fair amount of plot in the book, particularly dealing with Penny’s psychopathic brother Matt’s attempts to take over the house and use it to make money, but the crux of Nicotine is in the interaction between the characters, and it is in this that Ms. Zink really shines. Often reviewers praise authors for creating characters that are likable or memorable, but Nicotine is stocked with characters that step right off of the page. Penny, Rob, Matt, Sorry, Amalia, and Jazz all come to life, in such a way that I laughed with them one minute, (except for Matt), and wanted to grab them by the shirt and shake the snot out of them the next. For me the most intriguing was Jazz, a true free spirit, sensuous one moment and destructive the next, she was a force of nature that almost overtook the book.
Nicotine is Penny’s book, however. The power of her story as she makes her way through the sorrow of her father’s death to a eventually find her place in the world is all the stronger for me because it develops within and around all of the complications a swirl in her life. The nonlinear flow made it resonate more for me.
I also enjoyed Ms. Zink’s prose. It was quirky, offhand, and yet often oddly precise. I found that I like it most when it addressed a subject indirectly. Which is how I found my way into this book, and how I ended up liking it so much. Don’t over-analyse it. Just get in there, and if you are like me, will find it a bit like home.