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Not as good as High Fidelity ... but still worth a read
am 8. Juni 2005
As comic novels go, this book takes on a frightfully tricky subject: suicide.
On New Year's Eve in North London, four lost souls go to a roof of a particularly famous suicide point called "Topper's House" to leap - only to discover a traffic jam (themselves), and, instead of jumping, end up striking up an uneasy alliance/friendship. ("Even though we had nothing in common beyond that one thing," as the character Martin states at one point.) That's the high-concept opening and theme of this novel, in a nutshell.
The four characters:
MARTIN: a disgraced, morning talk-show host who served time in jail for sleeping with an underage girl. Divorced by his wife, humiliated by the media.
MAUREEN: a middle-aged, self-sacrificing (and long-suffering) single mom whose only son is a virtual vegetable. A Catholic who states (p. 77): "I don't believe in luck as much as punishment." She had sex once, with only one man - which resulted in a child, the cross she had to bear (and could no longer bear).
JESS: a bratty, impulsive, volatile, foul-mouthed rebel teen, daughter of a well-known government official.
JJ: a 30-ish "failed" American musician (leader of the defunct cult band, Big Yellow) - now turned pizza delivery boy. (A character most resembling Rob from High Fidelity)
The novel is told from the point of view of these four characters - that is, in alternating monologues (reminding me of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying).
At one point a significant reference is made to Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, in which the character of Jess suggests the author "killed herself because she couldn't make herself understood."
What's unfolds then, in this novel, is the characters finding the WORDS to their despair.
WHAT I LOVED:
The humor. Given this horribly dark subject matter, Nick Hornby continually finds a way to make his material and situations amusing.
WHAT I DIDN'T LOVE:
Finding this horribly dark subject matter amusing.
Part of the problem with Nick Hornby is that he is a comic novelist in the traditional sense. (As with Shakespeare's comedies, it is the happy ending that defines it as such.)
I kept thinking that this novel might work better as a play or a skit. The opening on the roof is very theatrical, almost like a Samuel Beckett play (full of gallows humor). There rest of the book, essentially, is a series of monologues.
Some people may find A Long Way Down a little shallow, a little contrived and glib, like a TV sitcom run amok. Hornby constantly undermines the seriousness of his subject matter in order to make it bearable; but in doing so he also undermines the weight of it; in a way, he sort of paints himself into a corner from the beginning. The rest of the novel is about Hornby writing himself out of the hole. Give him credit for courage, though.
All the negative aspects aside -- there are A LOT of laugh-out-loud passages in this book; there's enough humor and wit and liveliness for me to recommend it. His writing is still a pleasure to read, his characters full of attitude and intensely likeable, and after The Loser's Club: Complete Restored Edition by Richard Perez (another recent Amazon favorite of mine), I'm still recommending Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down. Maybe not his best -- High Fidelity still commands that spot -- but still good, a comic novel stretching the limits of what a comic novel should be.