Death of an idea: Hornby's suicide gimmick

June 05, 2005|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

A Long Way Down

By Nick Hornby. Riverhead Books.

352 pages. $24.95.

Nick Hornby's first couple of novels, High Fidelity and About a Boy, installed him as part of the pop-culture firmament. He did three things very well in those books: He established ownership of a character type with wide appeal, the overgrown, callow, but well-meaning fanboy; he built protagonists with ample room to grow; and he wrote in an up-to-the-minute conversational style that proved screenplay-ready. In fact, the film versions in both cases made the books themselves seem almost dispensable.

As a recipe, this looked foolproof. Hornby's best novels aren't high art, but they are well-made stories that droves of readers have identified with. While he deserves credit for attempting to transcend that recipe in his next novels, How to Be Good and the newly released A Long Way Down, the results suggest that he shouldn't throw away the cookbook just yet.

A Long Way Down overreaches and under-reaches at the same time. On one hand, Hornby tackles new character types that he has no purchase on, or even much apparent interest in. On the other, he does so in the ingratiatingly colloquial first-person voice familiar to anyone who has read the earlier books, and toward the same sort of conclusion -- not so much a happy ending as an affirming, almost therapeutic one.

Four characters co-star in A Long Way Down, narrating in turns. There's Martin, a morning TV host who has just served a brief prison sentence for statutory rape. There's Maureen, the Irish Catholic single mother of a severely handicapped teenager. There's JJ, an American whose ruling obsession with his busted-up rock band seems to function mainly to brand this a Nick Hornby novel. And there's Jess, the 18-year-old daughter of a political functionary and a "Whaddya got?" kind of rebel.

This motley crew converges one night on a London rooftop known for suicides. It's New Year's Eve -- a crowded night on the ledge -- and the four strangers providentially complicate each other's plans to jump. This is a notably gimmicky premise for a novel, but one that a writer as clever as Hornby might well have gotten away with if his craft were up to snuff and his characters fully imagined.

Instead, he settles for a crude notion of what the sheltered, pious Maureen might think, for instance, about homosexuality: "Anyway, I didn't know anything about gays, so I just presumed they were all unhappy and wanted to kill themselves." Maureen's priggishness is exaggerated throughout, and Jess and JJ seem hasty sketches, as if their youth relieved Hornby of the burden of making them whole persons. The mordantly witty, worldly Martin is easily the most entertaining narrator, if about as deep as an ashtray.

After the big rooftop set-piece is played out, it quickly becomes clear how little else Hornby has in mind beyond his gimmick. After coming back down to earth -- by way of the stairs -- the four become tabloid fodder, go on vacation together, and finally stage their own intervention at a Starbucks.

It would be hard to overstate how arbitrary this all seems, or how little the book has to say on its ostensible subject. "Wanting to die seems like it might be a part of being alive," one character offers. But neither he nor any of the others is a convincing would-be suicide. Despite the seemingly serious premise, what Hornby has produced is not a profound novel about death wishes, but a pedestrian one about lifestyles.

Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago. She keeps a blog about books and the arts at www.artsjournal. com / aboutlastnight.

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