My 2016 in Reading
One year ago, I wrote about all the books I read in 2015. The piece garnered more reaction than I could have hoped for. Imagine, I thought at the time, there are real living people who read books and like to talk about them, even when they can just stream the Star Wars trailer over and over again on their iPhones or browse Instagram until they fall into a coma. There’s hope yet.
A lot has changed for the country, and for me, in the past year. I won’t get into the former, because you’ve read enough about that. For my personal life, 2016 was a year of fascinating transition. I quit my job at the New York Observer and briefly achieved E-list celebrity status. (E must be the lowest.) I did not anticipate such attention. Then again, the name Donald Trump was involved, so people were bound to care.
Since then, I’ve embarked on a new career as a freelance journalist. Initially, this was vaguely terrifying. I have a distinct memory of standing outside Mar-a-Lago for Trump’s Florida victory party as I mulled over career options and grimly concluded I could either work for the Observer or burn up my savings account. This turned out to not be true. It’s been a thrill to have my byline appear in the publications I’ve admired most, like the Guardian, New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Columbia Journalism Review, and the Village Voice. I’ve learned you can write mostly about the things you truly care about, do it for some great publications, and still have time to go to the gym, de Blasio-style. And you won’t go broke doing it.
As my journalism career moves in a direction that would have thrilled me beyond measure when I was a 22-year-old commuting one hour each way to my $24,000-a-year job at the Queens Tribune, my nascent literary career remains, well, nascent. I don’t like to talk about this much because for a long time I didn’t believe you could call yourself a writer unless you had published books that were available at any shrinking number of Barnes and Nobles. I don’t like talking about the things I haven’t published, the works in progress, because touting words that may never see the light of day is a bit like bragging about being the all-time minor league homerun hitter. Safe to say, I’ve hit many minor league homeruns (and singles), while taking steps closer (and back) towards another goal: publishing novels. In 2016, I learned I can enjoy journalism almost as much as writing fiction, which was not true for many years. Someday, if I actually publish a book or four, I will tell you about the books on my hard drive.
Reading informs my writing, fiction and nonfiction alike. I think all journalists need to read more books. I’m convinced we’d get smarting reporting and smarter reporters. I grade all the books I read*, as you might recall. They are, as all grades are, incredibly subjective.
*I didn’t grade two books this year. One was written by a family member, and another I wrote about already for the Village Voice. In the Voice piece, I profiled the writer, Marvin Cohen.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: (C) People know me, if they know me at all, as something of a contrarian and cynic. It takes a while to see the childlike glee kicking at my insides, seeking release. I really want to like the books I read. More so if they’re critically-lauded, because I am always in search of voices that can speak to me. At the 2015 Brooklyn Book Festival, I scooped up a copy of Fates and Furies, curious to know what the buzz was about. A National Book Award nominee, Fates and Furies turned out to be one of the more disappointing reads I’ve encountered in several years. The story of a superficially successful marriage between a majestic, if dim, playwright and his miserable wife, Fates and Furies can charitably be called an exegesis of the late 20th, early 21st century marriage, or an artful allegory with Grecian overtones. The plot, however, is rather implausible, the protagonists alternatingly alluring or insufferable, and the narrative stuffed with “melodramatic accelerations,” to borrow James Wood’s apt description. You may love this novel. I can’t.
Did You Ever Have a Family? by Bill Clegg: (A-) For many reasons, Lena Dunham’s wish to have an abortion was asinine, but I’m not going to spend much time litigating that debate. Dunham’s latest firestorm did remind me, though, of how, like the Girls dynamo, I’ve experienced no serious adversity in my life. No untimely deaths, no life-altering tragedies. (I can hear my mom screaming, “don’t give yourself a kenahora!”) This is good. I hope it stays this way forever and I can live into my early 300’s, still looking 27, while everyone I love remains effectively immortal. Clegg, a power agent who happens to be a power novelist, has known his fair share of tragedy as a former crack addict, and conjures the sensation of loss as effectively as any writer I’ve come across in some time. Did You Ever Have a Family? tells, from rotating perspectives, the story of June Reid, a wealthy Connecticut woman who, on the night before her daughter’s wedding, loses her daughter, daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband, and boyfriend in a house fire. Reid must somehow put her life back together after a random accident destroys just about everyone she ever cared about. Also a study of class and race relations — Clegg weaves together the lives of the homeowners and the people who swab their castles — the novel finds it emotional center, beyond June, in the story of Luke Morey, her much younger biracial lover, and his white mother, the despondent cleaning woman Lydia. If the threads interweave a bit too tidily, and the novel screams “literary fiction” through its polish, you’ll still find yourself holding back tears at the end. That’s no small achievement.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty: (A-) Peculiar, uproarious, and mostly stunning, The Sellout reminded me of Dave Chapelle at his peak. This wasn’t the kind of satire I imagined could win over a Man Booker committee, but I’m glad it did. In short: a young black man living in an “agrarian ghetto” of Los Angeles ends up in front of the Supreme Court for, well, reinstating slavery. On his own property, at least. Black American and white American pop culture each come up for a bulldozing, and it’s readily clear that nothing is too sacred for Beatty to skewer — and that’s how it should be. Rather than say much more, I’ll leave you with how the narrator describes Disneyland: “If Disneyland was indeed the Happiest Place on Earth, you’d either keep it a secret or the price of admission would be free and not equivalent to the yearly per capita income of a small sub-Saharan African nation like Detroit.” Indeed.
Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cailda Jetha: (B) It’s good to occasionally be wary of pop science books. A grand, provocative narrative and poppy writing is the stuff best-sellers are made of, and you’ll rip through Sex at Dawn in a matter of days. That’s a credit of the authors, because it’s much easier said than done. First, the good: Sex at Dawn offers a convincing, if unsettling for some, argument for how monogamy, as a social construct, goes against our basic instincts. They point out primates are rarely monogamous, with the anti-social Gibbon monkey serving as an exception. Before the rise of agriculture, which allowed for the spread of new diseases, the hunter-gatherer, polyamorous human lived a healthier, more egalitarian existence, they argue. Ryan and Jetha are guilty of creating strawmen — they denounce a “standard” narrative of monogamy being strenuously upheld by science, which isn’t necessarily true since it’s unclear such a consensus exists — and some influential voices, including evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, have denounced the methodology of the book. Either way, Sex at Dawn offers a thesis at least worth considering.
The Right Hand of Sleep by John Wray: (B+/A-) John Wray seems doomed to be one of those very good novelists you’ve never heard of. I read Lowboy, told from the perspective of a mentally-ill teenager obsessed with the subway system, when it came at in 2009, and was always curious about his other books. The Right Hand of Sleep, his 2001 debut, won a Whiting Award, and it’s easy to see why. A meditative work of historical fiction, Wray conjures pre-Anschluss Austria as if he’d lived there among the innkeepers and farmers. We see the slow creep of fascism through the eyes of a weary World War I deserter returned to his hometown, where he falls for a woman with a cousin in the budding Nazi Party. Quotidian life in the rural town strains to remain quotidian as the tide of Nazism laps beyond Germany. Wray sketches a world that is disturbing yet banal; few can imagine the horror that’s to come.
Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte: (A-) One of the better debut novels I’ve read, Private Citizens has been anointed as the great millenial novel. The protagonists, though, are marginally millenials, in their early 20’s in 2007, and one doesn’t even know how to use email. That’s all part of the romp. Tulathimutte is a pleasurable stylist, manically funny without sacrificing substance. Following four hapless Stanford grads making a go at adulthood in San Francisco, Private Citizens is a pitch-perfect, unrelenting satire, skewering everything from dormroom liberalism to web 2.0. At some point, eyeballs are amputated. Don’t ask.
Black Sail/White Rabbits by Kevin Hall: N/A
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: (D) Unfortunately, this was the first and only book I’ve read by Atwood. I know she’s done much better and I look forward to reading the copy of The Blind Assassin on my bookshelf. In Atwood’s defense, the novel was launched as a serial for the website Byliner, and perhaps Atwood never intended it to become a fully-fledged print book. But a book it became, arriving in 2015 as an unfunny, clunky satire that ruins a gripping premise: an economic collapse brings about a world where people willingly alternate between living in a penal colony and an idealized suburbia. There are flocks of Elvis impersonators, sex robots, and characters as flat as playing cards. Deal yourself out of this one.
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe: (B+) How will we act when we know death is close? Will we even have the benefit of knowing? The literary critic Katie Roiphe documents in almost too-glittering detail the last months of six famous writers, artists, and thinkers: John Updike, Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter. A critic will ask why there aren’t more women or people of color profiled, and that’s a fair question. But Roiphe is very good at what she does. We see Freud, suffering from mouth cancer, refusing to give up tobacco. Sontag, a battler enervated by past brushes with cancer, refuses to concede that this round of blood cancer is killing her. Updike keeps writing. If dying is somewhat idealized, it’s also thoroughly plumbed, shed of taboo. We can only hope to do it on our own terms.
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy: (B/B+) There’s a bit too much hero-worship of the police in Ghettoside for my taste — it’s nothing against police, but I find they are venerated too much at the expense of other public servants — and that’s a byproduct of Leovy, a Los Angeles Times reporter, embedding with police detectives for years. But the book is illuminating, and helps to scramble our relationship to the overly simplified debate over how police departments should be reformed. In Ghettoside, we understand not only how gang violence eviscerates communities, but how the criminal justice system too often fails to bring killers to justice. (African-American males are just 6 percent of the country but 40 percent of those murdered, Leovy notes, one of many disturbing factoids in the book.) For those on the left (with whom I am sympathetic) who only view the criminal justice debate through the lens of reining in trigger-happy police, this book offers a supplement to that narrative. Many of the poorest and most desperate residents of Los Angeles want police — they just want good, morally upstanding officers who will care about their plight and chase after those who deserve to be brought to justice, and not punish downtrodden residents for petty infractions. Leovy’s central thrust is that police departments don’t spend nearly enough time, energy or money in trying to solve murders. When murders go unsolved, people — particularly poor, black people — lose faith in the police. And gang members believe they can kill with impunity.
Zero K by Don DeLillo: (A-/A) I don’t have a single favorite author, but DeLillo ranks at the very top of my pantheon. Libra, his novel of Lee Harvey Oswald’s tormented inner life, still jars me six years after reading. DeLillo brought the most heat in the 1980s and 1990s, when White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld were all published and established the Bronx boy as one of the preeminent American novelists of the 20th century. Writing on terror and mass hysteria long before 9/11, DeLillo is as prescient an observer of the American condition as any writer alive, so it was disappointing when his novels of the 2000’s failed to resonate in the same way. His reckoning with 9/11, 2007’s Falling Man, always seemed lacking, and the thinness of 2010’s Point Omega seemed to tell me that DeLillo, now approaching 80, was nearing retirement. Instead, Zero K dropped in the spring of 2016, easily DeLillo’s best work since the 1990’s. Ross Lockhart, the novel’s protagonist, is a billionaire who has built a vast, starship-like compound in the desert for people who want to freeze their dead bodies and awaken in a peaceful, post-racial future. Ross’ wife is dying and she plans to be frozen; Ross, to his son Jeffrey’s consternation, decides to join her, even though he’s healthy. Jeffrey is the novel’s narrator, wandering the bleak compound while trying to come to terms with his father’s decision. DeLillo’s novel is a dark satire of the culture of tech evangelicalism promising solutions to everything, if only we ceaselessly innovate. The world is getting better all the time because we have iPhones, Alexa, self-driving cars, and TV-on-demand, right? Why can’t death be solved too? The dream is eternally seductive.
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: (B-) How many abundantly cerebral postmodern novelists manage to work in a reference to former marginal Met Josh Satin? The answer is one, Tom McCarthy. I read C when it came out and came away impressed. Satin Island is a clever novel, though I can’t say I ever savored my time within its pages. U., an anthropologist, is employed by a corporation to work on a huge, mysterious, and civilization-altering project: a comprehensive study of mankind. McCarthy satirizes the way just about every facet of our modern existence has been commodified and monetized; what matters most is that there’s money to be made, not how people live and die.
Mr. Smith Goes to Prison by Jeff Smith: (B+) I was lucky enough to buy a signed copy from Smith himself at a party last year and I was glad I did. A young, dynamic Missouri state senator with his whole political life ahead of him, Smith was sent to prison for a year for lying to the feds about a minor campaign finance violation. His account of life there is eye-opening for anyone who, like me, only knows prison life through popular culture. Smith’s big lesson is that our prison system is particular poor at rehabilitating people. Many prisoners want to learn a trade, get smarter, and try to contribute to society. They don’t want to rot in a cell. But prison guards and the system writ large show little interest, as Smith learned, in making prisoners into future productive citizens. Most ex-cons re-offend because it’s the only life they know. Smith argues many of the inmates he met have the stuff to be great, legitimate businessmen — they’re self-starters, intellectually curious, and hard-working — but have applied themselves, through circumstance, to the illicit instead. Smith blames Democrats and Republicans alike for a profitable, prison-industrial complex that incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, many of them poor and black. The good news is that criminal justice reform is now a cause being embraced by both parties. The bad news is that there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.
Undone by John Colapinto: (C) Despite his track record as an excellent New Yorker staff writer and the author of two other books, Colapinto’s Undone was rejected by 41 American publishers. This fact alone was enough to draw me in; as an admirer of subversive fiction (I’ve read almost everything, outside of some forgettable latter-day philosophical tracts, written by Henry Miller), I wanted to see what kind of scandalous work could be cooked up to deter so many publishers. While the plot summary may make some readers blanch — a nice guy writer thinks he is being seduced by his long-lost daughter, though the girl really isn’t related to him and it’s all just a scheme cooked up by a pedophile attorney to steal the writer’s cash — Undone is a novel that will haunt you only if you don’t get out much. Packed with overwrought prose and a flimsy premise, the novel fails to ever elevate its protagonists beyond the realm of cartoons. Despite the subject matter, the sex-shy Colapinto can’t even bring himself to write the word “penis” or remotely describe an erection. Victorianisms like “tumescence” and “flaming member” have to suffice.
The Girls by Emma Cline: (B) Appearing in the summer of 2016, The Girls came with enormous hype: a $2 million advance for a debut author and a blurb from Lena Dunham. Cline is enormously talented and her sentences sparkle. Her novel, a fictionalization of the Charles Manson murders, is set in 1969, and is pitch-perfect Sixties mimesis. You can practically hear “Sugar, Sugar” tinkling through the car stereo, California sunshine splashing across the dashboard. The novel suffers from overwriting; Cline strains too much to make her sentences too precious. Everything is described. Air is “candid with silence.” Sentence fragments, if profound, abound. You’ll ask yourself what it all amounts to. I’m still looking forward to what she publishes next.
Oreo by Fran Ross: (A-) Before Dave Chappelle and Paul Beatty, there was Fran Ross. A New York Review of Books essay by Darryl Pinckney alerted me to Oreo, an overlooked 1974 novel that, sadly, was the only book she published before dying of cancer in 1985. An acid satire of postwar race relations that melds the fierce rhythm of a Richard Pryor set (Ross briefly wrote for the comedic icon) and Pynchonesque mathematical digressions, Oreo tells the story of a half black, half Jewish woman on the hunt for her deadbeat father in New York. A quest novel mirroring the Greek tale of Theseus, Oreo is chock full of Yiddish, street slang, and puns, entirely self-aware and always funny. Chapters are broken into sections like “Oreo in a phone booth at Penn Station” or “Oreo in the Bathroom.” To give you some idea of what you’re in for, here’s how the novel opens, describing a black Jewish girl’s genesis: “When Frieda Schwartz heard from her Schmuel that he was (a) marrying a black girl, the blood soughed and staggered in all her conduits as she pictured the chiaroscuro of the white-satin chuppa and the shvartze’s skin; when he told her that he was (b) dropping out of school and would therefore never become a certified public account — Riboyne Shel O’lem! — she let out a great geshrei and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary.”
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby: (B/B-) I never read Hornby before and decided to give this book a try after finding a free copy. The novel has an intriguing premise: four strangers, all attempting suicide, meet on a rooftop on New Year’s Eve in England. Chapters alternate in perspective: there’s disgraced TV presenter Martin, lonely mother Maureen, uncouth teenager Jess, and failed American musician J.J. The four can’t go through with the suicide and form an uneasy bond, slowly becoming entangled as they try to repair each other’s lives. A breezy, if morose, comedy, the novel is good summer reading. You can put it away in a few days and move on to something else. This isn’t literature that clings to the bones.
Hystopia by David Means: (A-) A critically-acclaimed short story writer, Means dropped his first novel, Hystopia, in 2016. There are books that contain multitudes and those that don’t; books that crackle with worlds-devouring power and books that, well, don’t. This falls into the former category: a novel-within-a-novel, Hystopia is set in a hysterical, alternate America where John F. Kennedy repeatedly survives assassination attempts to lead the country through Vietnam and riots scar much of the Michigan landscape where the action takes place. Means sets up the story as a frame narrative: We have an editor’s note telling us about the suicide of a young Vietnam vet named Eugene Allen who completed, before his death, the manuscript for a novel called Hystopia. In Allen’s world (and the world of his novel, though there are subtle differences between the two), battle-scarred veterans have their memories wiped clean through a process pioneered by President Kennedy. Kennedy’s Psych Corps “enfold” fake, reenacted memories into the mind with the help of a drug aptly called Tripizoid, replacing reality with fantasy. When the enfolding process fails, the consequences are dire. One veteran, Rake, goes on a murderous rampage, and Allen’s manuscript is concerned with the hunt to bring Rake to justice. Even as the bulk of the novel races toward a satisfactory end, the reader is forced to remember that it is all fiction within this universe. Its author, Eugene Allen, is dead. The novel was his retreat, but it couldn’t save him.
The Beer Can by the Highway: Essays on What’s American about America by John Kouwenhoven: (B/B+) In my parent’s apartment building, there are bookshelves with free books. The so-called “co-op library.” Occasionally, you come across hidden gems, or books you just would not have considered otherwise. Kouwenhoven, a literature professor and Harper’s editor, died in 1990, and his 1961 book was culled from essays and talks he delivered in the 1950’s. The midcentury period has always fascinated me, for the misleading veneer of normalcy that masked the chaos underneath, and the way people seemed to genuinely believe that America was getting better all the time. Kouwenhoven touches on many topics, from architecture to advertising to education, and it’s difficult to scrounge together a single theme that best explains what this book is about. But that is part of the point: Kouwenhoven was less in search of grand unifying theories than examining what, among a beer can, a piece of gum, or a skyscraper, can be defined as “American,” and the implications of attempting such an endeavor. How do the products America produces define the American experiment?
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: (B-) A debut novel that intrigued me when I first read a review in 2015, The Ghost Network has its strengths as something of a metafictive thriller, revolving around the sudden disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like pop star obsessed with the Situationists, of whom I have a soft spot for. Disabato is at her best when meditating on the nature of 21st century fame and our society of the spectacle, and I was drawn to the premise of a secret rail network operating beneath Chicago. The prose of the novel, though, never thrilled me, and some of the book — since it’s framed as an Oberlin academic’s account of the mystery — reads too much like plot summary.
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson: (B) One of those classics I circled from afar but never approached until this year, I understand now how these interconnecting short stories were revolutionary for their time. Rendered here are the anxieties of small-town life, language beholden to the movement of the mind rather than plot. Anderson’s prose does hold him back, and he can’t match contemporaries like Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Henry Miller. But that doesn’t mean Winesburg, Ohio isn’t haunting. Anderson shows us human desolation that is timeless, the fears of change, growing old, and not fitting in never dissipating. In Winesburg, America is on the cusp of the 20th century. Great victories and horrors await. The characters seem to know.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth: (A-) A few years ago, I started reading American Pastoral and hated it. I’m a Roth fan — as a Jew, you kind of have to be, and I count The Counterlife and Sabbath’s Theatre among my favorites — and thought his Pulitzer Prize winner, on a quick first pass, was the sort of book he wrote to win a prize, a digestible slice of his canon for whatever can pass for a mass audience in the fiction world. Upon hearing that a movie version of the novel was coming out this fall, I decided to give American Pastoral another try. If Roth’s approach is at times overheated, the novel overcomes it with a brilliant distillation of midcentury American angst (the 60’s sure feel a lot like today)and personhood, which I found most poignant. The Swede Levov of the novel is always an approximation, since the narrator and usual Roth alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is only imagining how his life fell apart. (We learn early on Swede, Zuckerman’s boyhood idol, is dead, and Zuckerman feels compelled to put Swede’s life on the page.) So much of existence amounts to just that: rendering, through superficial interactions, the inner lives of people you can never truly know. Who am? What am I? Your conception of self can never match how others conceive of you. Identities are porous, malleable. Few writers can hammer at these themes like Roth.
Mislaid by Nell Zink: (B+/A-) Nell Zink was my favorite discovery of 2016. A pen pal of Jonathan Franzen’s who, on a sentence-by-sentence level, can out-write him (and I like Franzen!), Zink is daring and original, deserving of all the accolades coming her way. In Mislaid, which came out in 2015, she tackles class, race-relations, and human sexuality in a comic fable of a white lesbian, Peggy, who marries a decadent gay male poet and gives birth to a daughter who, thanks to Peggy’s peculiar machinations, grows up thinking she’s black. Set in the Sixties in Zink’s native Virginia, Mislaid left a smirk on my face that I couldn’t rub off until I closed the book.
Others, Including Morstive Sternbump by Marvin Cohen: N/A. See my profile of Cohen in the Village Voice
City of Night by John Rechy: (B+/A-) When I picked up City of Night at the 2016 Brooklyn Book Festival, I was reminded of the relative paucity of my literary education. Rechy’s novel, first published in 1963, had somehow escaped me. Often compared to the Beats, Rechy reminded me most of Hubert Selby Jr. and his Last Exit to Brooklyn, still among the most visceral and disturbing novels I’ve read, and Henry Miller for its peregrinations, though Rechy’s prose has a very different flavor. Largely autobiographical, City of Night follows an unnamed “youngman” drifting through New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New Orleans, having sex with men for money. Deeply lonely and addicted to the hustle, the man befriends drag queens, a wannabe cowboy, a closeted father, fallen Hollywood actors, and various men like himself haunting night clubs and gay bars, looking to score while evading the police. City of Night has distracting stylistic quirks, like an addiction to adverbs and the capitalization of certain words for emphasis, but it remains a crackling work far ahead of its time. Few wrote about gay life in America like Rechy did. Even after he published books, he continued to hustle.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: (B+) This was a very good book that, for me at least, didn’t quite meet expectations. I know most people won’t agree with me. It wasn’t so much the National Book Award win or Oprah’s selection that drew me to The Underground Railroad. In graduate school, I was assigned Whitehead’s debut novel, The Intuitionist, and marveled at the ingenuity and glimmer of its language. While most reviewers seem to now regard The Underground Railroad, which took over the literary world in August, as Whitehead’s masterwork, I can’t agree. The novel is prototypical historical fiction with a surrealistic twist: the railroad is literal, an inexplicable, underground rail network that ferries runaway slaves to freedom, from the antebellum South to the Zion of the North. Unlike in Zink’s books (see below for a further example), no character ever popped off the page, and the many ways in which this novel was apropos — the dark joke about riding an underground railroad to see America (you only see pitch blackness underground) was resonant — wasn’t enough to vault it into the realm of truly exceptional fiction, like Toni Morrison’s Sula or anything by James Baldwin. Slavery is this country’s original sin and is one of many reasons I will always be skeptical of anyone who is too patriotic, lest they forget this country was built on the backs of indentured servants and black slaves, and grown into a superpower at the expense of slaughtered Native Americans. Whitehead captures this dismal truth.
Nicotine by Nell Zink: (B+) There are no sacred cows in Zink’s works. After her send-up of the postwar South, she aims her fire at the Tri-State, 2016, where a collective of activists squat in an abandoned Jersey City house they’ve christened “Nicotine.” (They’re all smokers.) The novel is up-to-date enough to drop references to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and thrums with millenial, New Yorkish authenticity; never mind that the author is in her 50’s and lives in Berlin. Nicotine’s protagonist is Penny, a half-Colombian woman in her early 20’s who watches her beloved father, a peculiar mystic/cult leader/motivational guru, die in his early 80’s. The age gap is due to Norm Baker’s seduction of Penny’s mother, forty years her junior, who was once a South American village girl Norm adopted and later married. The aforementioned squatters inhabit Norm’s parents’ old home; upon his death, it’s up to Penny to evict them. Instead, she falls in love with the handsomest — and most asexual — squatter, and must do battle with her sadistic half-brother Matt to save Nicotine. Matt is older than Penny’s mother. Penny’s mother might still be in love with Matt. Got all that? Plot isn’t really the point with Zink. Her sentences sizzle as the absurdities pile up. Like DeLillo, Zink is one of those writers you take pleasure in, sentence by sentence.