The Journal of Nicholas the American
(Big Engine, £9.99, 193 pages, paperback, first published 1986, this
edition published 2002; ISBN 1-903468-11-6.)
It's not easy being Russian -- Nicholas Dal will tell you this. Life
is hard and misery pozhar-golava -- empaths who
directly experience the emotions of those nearby. Theirs is a powerful
talent: particularly intense emotions can induce seizures in them. Only
men of the Dal line have this 'gift' and only alcohol can dull their
sensitivity, making it impossible to be safely in company for very long.
only ever moments away. It's even harder being a second generation Russian
immigrant in the United States. The cherry on the cake for Nicholas
is being one of a long line of
The Dals left Russia under something of a cloud when Nicholas was very
young; now the single surviving members of three generations live in
constant fear that their past -- whatever it is -- will catch up with
them, so they live their lives as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.
Hence the book's title, Nicholas The American; Nicholas is in
denial of his past and refusing to acknowledge an important part of
it, whilst being pozhar-golava means he cannot fully embrace
his new nationality and life.
Of course, this would be a different novel if nothing else were to
happen and we were simply to follow the resigned desperation of the
last few Dals (Nicholas tells us he has had a vasectomy so that the
'gift' will die with him), but Nicholas falls briefly in love with a
girl in his class at university. Love is understandably risky for Nicholas,
but love for a girl whose mother is dying of cancer (which, purely as
a side-effect, is ripping the rest of her family apart) has a 10-metre
tall, bright-red, flashing 'danger' sign surrounded by barbed wire in
front of it.
It also appears that an American psychologist has learned some of the
Dal family history and is eager to talk to them about it ...
Nicholas The American is narrated via entries in Nicholas's
diary, and he is not the most sympathetic character in the world --
which may at first sound odd given his 'gift', but becomes perfectly
understandable a short way into the narrative. His head is continually
and largely unavoidably invaded by others; he knows the best and
worst of people and always has done. By now he is merely rather tired
of this aspect of the pozhar-golava, but is actively as frightened
of others' strong emotions as a haemophiliac must be of sharp edges.
This cocktail of fear and ennui means that Nicholas now drinks more
than most to deaden his empathic sensitivity, producing behaviour that
appears very odd to those outside the Dal family.
I was surprised how much I cared about a character like Nicholas considering
how much hard work he is. He lives a lonely 'Prozac' life, avoiding
the highs and lows the rest of us take for granted; he is self-pitying
and stupid, unfair and unwise -- but, then, who isn't? Also, the diary
format of this novel probably works against Nicholas more than for him,
and it doesn't quite come off as a realistic device, but it's by no
means badly done, just a little claustrophobic.
I was perhaps even more surprised how much I actually enjoyed reading
Nicholas The American since there's so much unhappiness and trauma
in it. Where it excels -- where Leigh Kennedy excels, I should say --
is in picking out the shining moments of life, the pearls along the
string, that stand out against the grey (or darker) background of everyday
experience. That's not to say that Nicholas The American is a
light-hearted, life-affirming romantic comedy -- far from it; this is
sober, introverted and desperate stuff -- but somehow it isn't depressing.
Robert Silverberg's excellent novel Dying Inside, which needed
mentioning at some point in this review, is also a book about the agony
(but, crucially, also the ecstasy) of having psychic powers, and from
a distance has distinct parallels with Nicholas The American.
But the two books are significantly different in tone and plot, though
not, perhaps, in their final outcomes. If you like one you'll probably
like the other.
If you can indulge some of the more 'sensitive' diary entries and you're
not on Prozac yourself right now then Nicholas The American is
well worth your time and money.
One final bonus point for the publisher, Big Engine Press:
I didn't spot a single typo throughout these 193 pages, something unusual
enough in a small publisher for me to comment upon here. Well done!
Review by Stuart Carter