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Nicotine by Nell Zink
Literary fiction


by Nell Zink
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Quick take

Reading a good book offers the rush of a good smoke at half the price of a carton of cigarettes, and with none of the associated health risks.

Why I love it

Like the drug from which the book gets its title, Nicotine is adrenalizing and addictive. I could not put it down. My heart was racing and my thoughts were percolating and enjoyment oozed from every pore as I sunk into Zink’s unadulterated good-time storytelling.

I couldn’t help but love Penny Baker, recent college grad of pure heart with zero prospects, a taste for cigarettes, and a preference for bone jewelry and drum circle dancing. She’s steeped in grief following the death of her father '“ an event that took weeks of hospice care (Zink skewers the promise of 'œa good death' with sharp insights and surprising humor) and Penny was bedside for the entire thing, while the other members of her family largely bailed out due to commitments like work and ambition and greed, concepts utterly foreign to our dear Penny.

Penny needs love and comfort but instead her eager-to-move-on family members throw her the bone of a long-abandoned family house in Jersey City. When Penny arrives to find the place already inhabited by a crew of cigarette-smoking, tobacco-chewing squatters, she realizes she has nothing to call her own except an urgent need to belong somewhere, somehow. Having caught sight of a cute guy and in need of a nicotine fix, Penny sticks around for a beer and a smoke.

What ensues is a joyful, unpredictable, and surprisingly-affecting coming of age story. Penny may already be in her twenties but there is just about everything she needs to learn about identity, community, and connection. Out of the wreckage of her broken family and with the help of an impotent lover, some adventurous housemates, a huge comfy couch, and her own freakish optimism, Penny comes into her own. Her patience (lack of resolve), determination (stubbornness), and flexibility (indecision) get her to the place where she wants to be, in the home where she was meant to be and with the people she needs.

A glorious and surprising ending after a twisting and satisfying ride: the act of reading a good book offers the rush of a good smoke at half the price of a carton of cigarettes, and with none of the associated health risks and no pariah status. Nell Zink and her fearless writing prove my point: Nicotine is a win/win addiction.

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