One would be hard-pressed to come up with a title less likely to attract readers than the one attached to Nell Zink’s third novel. But anyone put off by it will miss out on a quirky and consistently engaging story about the millennial generation’s circuitous journey to find its way in the world.
The “Nicotine” of the novel’s title is a decrepit house in a “heroin-type neighborhood” of Jersey City that was the childhood home of Norman Baker, an “animist drug freak” whose medical clinic in Brazil attracted a group of passionate followers. When Norman’s devoted daughter, Penny, is evicted from his Upper West Side apartment after his death, she decides to explore the possibility of taking up residence at Nicotine, and arrives to find the house has been occupied by a group of activists united only by their passion for tobacco products. Soon the romantic lives of these characters entangle with those of Penny and her much older stepbrother, Matt, in ways that would make the term “it’s complicated” an understatement.
Zink’s fast-paced chronicle of the couplings and uncouplings that ensue amid a group that includes women named Sorry and Jazz and a self-avowed asexual bicycle activist is smart and never predictable. Though she was born a generation earlier than most of her characters, Zink is keenly attuned to the emotional weather that swirls around them. Based on the trials of Penny and her friends, she gives us reason to be optimistic about the millenials’ maturation, even as they seem destined to encounter a unique brand of stumbles along the way.