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When Fact Informs Fiction: Nathan Hill Brings the Chicago Riots of 1968 to Life in The Nix

At more than 600 pages, Nathan Hill’s incredible debut novel, The Nix, covers a lot of ground. But at its core, it is a book about history and the ways in which we can never quite escape our pasts, both on an individual and collective level. Protagonist Samuel Andresen-Anderson struggles with just that. Abandoned by his mother as a boy, Samuel is a man who can’t seem to move forward in life. Faye, his mother, is also haunted by the choices she made. But on a much larger scale, the book explores how history has a way of repeating itself, placing these characters against the tumultuous backdrop of the 1968 Chicago riots and gradually revealing the impact these events had on not only Faye and Samuel, but also on the United States as a country.

Throughout 1968, the city of Chicago was a hotbed of roiling unrest. Motivated in large part by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the people of Chicago rallied and rioted to protest the state of the country, opposing the long war in Vietnam and challenging leaders to bring about real change in the U.S. political system.

In August of that same year Democratic delegates arrived in Chicago for the 35th Democratic National Convention, and protestors from all over the country streamed into the city. No matter their ideology, religion, or race, they were all in united in their belief that change needed to happen, and the divided Democratic party was their primary target.

The situation in Chicago quickly escalated, eventually erupting into violence and chaos. Protestors clashed with police, pelting rocks and bottles and spewing insults, and the police responded with surprising brutality, removing their badges and setting upon the protestors with clubs, as described in one particularly harrowing scene in The Nix :

It is remarkable how quickly extraordinary things turn ordinary. By the now the patrons of the Haymarket Bar do not even flinch when some thrown projectile strikes the plate-glass windows. Stones, chunks of concrete, even billiard balls—all have made their way through the air, over the heads of the assembled police line, and whacked against the windows of the bar. . . . The cops are generally good at holding the line, but occasionally a wedge of protestors breaks through and a couple of kids get beaten up right in front of the Haymarket windows and dragged to a paddy wagon. This has now happened so many times that the folks in the bar have completely stopped watching it. They ignore it in that strained way they walk by homeless men on the street. (p. 536)

The 1968 Chicago riots would have a lasting effect on the lives of those who witnessed them and, as evidenced by Samuel, on the lives of their children as well. We are still experiencing the fallout of that conflict today, illustrating the extent to which these issues have gone unresolved. Nathan Hill himself explained it best in a recent interview:

I did a lot of research on the ’68 riots. . . . I also realized that not much had changed in American politics between then and now. In 1968 you had all these cultural forces meeting in a few square blocks, two sides of America grinding against each other ‘like tectonic plates,’ as one journalist described it. . . . It was like the culture war’s debutante ball, its coming out party. A lot of the fault lines revealed in Chicago in ’68 are, obviously, with us still.

It is novels like The Nix that help us interpret history and, perhaps, learn from past mistakes. Hill has provided a lens through which we can try to understand the circumstances that led to such a conflagration of dissent in 1968, and how these events continue to echo throughout history.