It’s not easy being Russian – Nicholas Dal will tell you this. Life is hard and misery is 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 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.
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!