This is an ambitious debut, the character’s lives connect in complex and far-reaching ways. The timeline spans decades, reaches high into the branches of family trees, and deep into the roots of history, and twines inside cyber space. What at first appears to be a terrorist act is the impetus of a much larger plot, one that reunites mother and son after decades apart.
Samuel Anderson is just 11-years-old when his mother, Faye, packs a bag and leaves her son and husband, her high school sweetheart who sells frozen meals for a living. Samuel is still in bed when his mother leans over to touch his shoulder. What do you want to be when you grow up? Samuel is wary, but too sleepy to really be aware. A novelist, he says. She kisses his forehead. I’ll be reading whatever you write.
An adult Samuel, his career as a novelist stalled, teaches writing at a university in Chicago, and finds the most enjoyable part of his day the late night hours he logs into Elfquest on his office computer and kills orcs. Until he receives two pieces of information. One, he is in violation of his publishing contract and his publisher will sue him for the advance he received for a book he could never quite bring himself to write. Two, his mother is facing a slew of charges, including terrorism, for throwing a handful of gravel at the governor of Wyoming, a man who compared immigrants to coyotes, and “perfected a sort of preacher-slash-cowboy pathos and antielitist populism” that gave him legs among blue-collar white conservatives. Separately the events are startling and upsetting, together they may just be the way for Samuel to write the book his publisher wants, and finally fully expunge himself of the mother who abandoned him.
Hill has the knack for writing characters readers feel like we’ve known our entire lives, and his dialogue is funny, wise, and alive. Laura Pottsdam, a creative cheater whose smartphone and requisite social media apps are her sole source of self-validation, manages to sound exactly like an entitled, delusional kid when she denies and then defends her cheating on a paper about Hamlet to her professor, Samuel—but her manner will actually illicit unexpected laughter from readers. Her reasoning, while flawed and hysterical, also mimics a legitimate thought process, one that stems from a disconnect with reality, and an inability to empathize, or to fully experience anything without the filters of technology and social media.
Filters and technology are both themes that Hill’s characters return to, along with disconnection, and the scars left by our parents. Pwnage’s filters, in this case, are technology: he plays Elfquest with Samuel, though neither has met outside their digital elf personas. Pwnage’s calculated justifications for putting off his new healthy lifestyle until he can actually afford it (and saving money to buy the green, organic goodness that he lets turn to mush in the fridge because he doesn’t actually know what to do with an uncooked vegetable, by taking garbage bags down to 7-11 at the right time every day to get all the hot dogs and burritos and grease-swaddled items from the hot food case marked for disposal) actually do make sense. They are also hysterical, and sad, and yet another brilliant commentary on modern American loosely tucked into the plot of Hick’s novel. When Pwnage tells his fellow gamers he is quitting Elfquest, the outpouring of camaraderie on the screen feels so good that he cannot actually log off. Both Laura and Pwnage are seeking a level of validation and emotion beyond social media, but are too attached to their filters to realize this.
Faye, Samuel’s mother and the accused terrorist, has her own filters, her own reasons for throwing the gravel, for leaving Samuel in the first place. In Norway, where Faye’s father grew up in a little fishing village in the far-north, children are told the story of the Nix. The water spirit scales the coastline hunting for adventurous or loner children to lure to their deaths. At first the Nix appears as a magnificent white horse, one every child longs to ride: “The kids who were the victim of the Nix always felt, at first, fear. Then luck. Then possession. Then pride. Then terror.” For the Nix is a fatal ride. The moral, as taught to Faye, is never trust things that seem too good to be true. But Faye’s moral is that “the things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst, ” and the Nix is no longer a horse, Faye tells a young Samuel. Usually the Nix is a person, one we think we love. And while people love for many reasons, not all of them are good; “people can be a Nix for each other.”
Faye’s past as a college student in Chicago during the 1968 riots, and her father’s story as a Nordic immigrant in America, both lend authenticity and depth to the narrative. Hill brings the sixties to life in the bearded beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg (a guest lecturer at Faye’s college, and her long-time literary idol), and helps revision the decade not as a time of free-love, but as “the time of free-love writing, when free love was widely condemned, rarely practiced, and terrifically marketed.” Hill’s novel tries to draw a truer picture of the unrest and the riots than in textbooks. In trying to understand and discuss the recent history of the 1960s, historians and the media have created a market niche for the decade, one of free-love and drugs, which, while untrue, has also denuded the essence of the decade by denigrating the passion of righteous young people, of a movement for freedom and equal rights. This history is more important than ever given the current landscape of our justice system. Hill’s novel accomplishes what great writing should: it entertains, and provokes thought about the real world.
Ultimately, Hill explores parents, how they shape us, scar us, disappoint us—and how we disappoint them. At the heart of the story live the last few lines of Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra”:
“—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset…”