Sunday, February 25, 2007

6. A Long Way Down

by Nick Hornby

It seems that there’s kind of an anti-Nick Hornby trend, especially after the publication of How to Be Good, the criticism there generally being that he doesn’t know how to write women (if you haven’t read the book, the protagonist is female). I disagree and contend that many women didn’t like his portrayal of the main character because he didn’t write as a typical female, but instead as a thinking, feeling individual. I, for one, identified with that. Which doesn’t mean I really liked that book either, but my problem was more that the story fell apart in the last two pages and that was kind of unfortunate.

Anyhoo – my point is that it’s somewhat “cool” to dislike Nick Hornby these days, most likely because he’s gained a certain amount of popularity, but I still love him and I’ll continue reading everything he publishes (except, maybe, Fever Pitch, but that’s because it’s about sports). I wouldn’t say that his latest, A Long Way Down, knocked it out of the park, but it was still an enjoyable, entertaining read with characters that you sympathized and commiserated with while somewhat despising at the same time. And that’s quite a skill to master.

A Long Way Down is about four people who come together for the purpose of committing suicide. It’s New Year’s Eve and Maureen, Martin, Jess, and JJ have all decided that life’s not worth living and come to the roof of Toppers’ House to do themselves in. Little do they expect to run into each other there – after all, who expects company at your own suicide – but after meeting and hearing everyone’s stories, they delay their deaths to go in search of Jess’s ex-boyfriend. No, the deterrent isn’t all that special or exciting, but it shows that these four aren’t entirely convinced that suicide is right for them. Of the four, Maureen possesses the most understandable reason for despair. Martin is a washed-up daytime talk show host who’s recently been released from jail after being convicted of sexual relations with a minor. He’s lost his wife, his children, and his credibility and is quite a sad sap, indeed. JJ’s come to England with his band and girlfriend and, now that the band has broken up and his girlfriend has left him, he’s realizing that he’ll never be musically successful and, now working in a pizza joint, is doomed to a life of monotony. Jess, just a teenager, is clearly a mess and is sort of person who has no internal filter and spits out whatever she’s thinking, no matter how pig-headed and ridiculous it is and, to that end, she’s easily the least sympathetic character, but when the dynamics of her family life are revealed, her reasons for coming to Toppers’ House are a little bit more evident. Maureen, however, is the mother of a nineteen-year-old boy who’s been confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak or care for himself for his entire life. Maureen’s had sex exactly one time and her singular lover, the father of her son, has never been in her life after that one night. Living in solitude and despair for nineteen years, one can see exactly why Maureen was on that roof. The fact that she’s also the most humble and optimistic of the four makes her the character you’re, surprisingly, drawn to most.

But the story’s not really about who’s worthy of suicide and who isn’t. After they leave the roof to go look for Jess’s boyfriend, because Martin thinks Jess is too young to want to die, they all decide to hang on for a little longer and meet up again after Valentine’s Day. If they still want to commit suicide at that time, then they can. What goes on in that time is a little, well, you can see how it would easily translate to the movie screen. The four meet up for regular coffee chats, except that Martin always has the attitude that he’s above all this and Jess flies off that handle at any moment. The press gets wind of the suicide pact and come after them, putting pictures of Jess and Martin in the paper and hounding them about the supposed Matt-Damon-looking angel that Jess contends provided the impetus to go on living their lives (and you can imagine that when this movie comes out, Matt Damon will indeed play this character). They go on a vacation together, which, predictably, does not go quite as planned.

I’ll admit that A Long Way Down is not Hornby’s best effort. It’s always a little disappointing when it feels like a book is written with the expectation that it will be translated to film, but it’s still an entertaining read and I liked it. Hornby has a knack for accurately capturing both dialogue and inner monologue and reading his words is akin to inhabiting his characters minds. Or maybe it’s more like his characters inhabiting yours. You have to give him his props - there are few contemporary authors who are able to do that.


Blogger piksea said...

I like Hornby and make no apologies. My adoration was cemented by 'The Polysyllabic Spree.' He came off as not only a gifted writer, but also a kindred spirit.

I didn't have a problem with the protagonist in 'How to Be Good.' I totally got her and definitely sympathized with her.

I listened to 'A Long Way Down' on audio. I had to grow to like some of the characters, but the fact that Hornby made me able to do that, I thought spoke volumes about his talent.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Dewey said...

What I remember about this book is that some of the characters were interesting and rounded and plausible, but some weren't.

5:23 PM  

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