This time, Hornby pulls his punches

Review Novel

October 28, 2007|By Steve Almond | Steve Almond,Los Angeles Times

Slam

By Nick Hornby

Putnam / 310 pages / $19.99

The British author Nick Hornby has made a booming career out of masculinity and its discontents. He writes smart, witty novels that make ideal fodder for box-office smashes. His essential talent is the ability to write about guy stuff - sports, music geekdom, the pursuit of women - without making anyone feel like a sucker in the process. That streak, I'm afraid, has come to an end.

Slam, his new young-adult novel, is told by a 16-year-old kid named Sam, who knocks up his then-girlfriend Alicia and becomes a dad.

There are a few sublime moments in the book, where Hornby nails the fumbling anguish of his hero. "We hadn't given up hope," Sam confesses at one point. "It was just a different kind of hope, for different sorts of things. We hoped that everything would somehow sort of maybe turn out not too bad." For the most part, though, Sam sounds fake, like some older guy impersonating a teen. Hornby gives Sam a skateboard and a poster of Tony Hawk to worship, but he never grants his hero the mindset of an actual teenager.

Which is why Sam - despite his hopes of going to college, despite the fact that he's not especially fond of Alicia and that neither is prepared to care for a baby - never seriously considers the possibility (even in his own mind) of abortion. Alicia's motivations are even more baffling. She wails that the baby is "the only thing she'd ever wanted." But the statement is absurd, histrionic. There has been nothing to suggest any maternal urgency within her. Hornby does make a fleeting effort to portray the grim reality of teen parenthood. "I was going to be something," an exhausted Alicia finally laments. "I don't mean something incredible. Just something. And what chance do you think I've got now?"

This is the most haunting question the novel poses, but one the author utterly dodges. Instead, his story winds up just the way you'd expect. The young parents struggle briefly, then triumph. They find new love interests. Sam goes off to college. The kid becomes a kind of ennobling accessory. Roll the credits.

The sad thing is that Hornby could have made this work. Sam is himself the product of an unhappy teen pregnancy. Had he been allowed to confront his choices, it's possible he might have come up hard against his own legacy - the lost dreams and lean years his parents suffered on his behalf.

But Hornby doesn't have the stomach for a messy row about abortion. Or perhaps his publishers, concerned about placing the book in high school libraries, suggested he elide the topic. Whatever the reason, the novel never recovers from this essential evasion.

Slam suggests that Hornby sees teens, and teen readers, as incapable of grappling with complex feelings and issues. That's not just condescending, it's flat-out wrong. Teenagers struggle with intense and conflicted emotions every day. (If you don't believe me, then you haven't spent much time around them recently.) Millions of them face unplanned pregnancies. They deserve a book that honors the upheavals of the experience.

Teenagers may not have the adult rhetoric down pat, but they often possess as much emotional insight as their elders, and even more candor. They're too overrun by emotion to fake nonchalance. That's what makes a book like The Catcher in the Rye so mesmerizing. The narrator is Sam's age, but he's wise to the phoniness of the adult world and his own bum heart. He refuses to dumb down his observations or spare readers the depth of his despair.

(If that seems an unfair comparison, try Project X, Jim Shepard's excellent 2004 novel, told by a troubled 14-year-old.)

Hornby is a brilliant writer, and he was, after all, a brilliant and troubled teenage boy once. He wrote about those years - wrenchingly, gorgeously - in his miraculous memoir Fever Pitch. The Hornby of Fever Pitch would have tagged Slam for what it is: a tragedy posing as a fairy tale.

Steve Almond writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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