Nick Hornby has been on quite a roll lately with a string of successful books and movie adaptations (Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, About a Boy). Were I Nick, I might compare my recent success to a soccer team on a long winning streak. Or maybe a better comparison would be a great band in its prime releasing a series of classic albums—like, say, the Rolling Stones from 1968 through 1972, from Beggar’s Banquet through Exile on Main Street.
But then the Stones made Goats Head Soup. That album came out in 1973, soon after Exile on Main Street—A Long Way Down, sadly, is Nick Hornby’s Goats Head Soup. If you’re familiar with the album, I could end this review right here and you’d have a pretty good idea how I feel about this novel. In fairness, however, the analogy doesn’t completely work. Goats is one of the Stones’ weaker albums, but it’s not a bad record. It has “Angie” and “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” and a few other good songs. Plus, Nick Hornby has not yet written his Exile, so while the comparison is well intentioned, it’s a bit strained. Like Hornby’s book.
This time out, Hornby is in trouble right from the start. He employs that tired and overused device common to bad romantic comedies—the “meet cute”. Four despondent Londoners meet unexpectedly on the roof of Topper’s House, a building famous as a jumping point for suicides. Making matters worse, Hornby sets this meeting on New Year’s Eve at roughly midnight. Really.
Suicide strikes me as a singularly solitary endeavor. But these four wankers all choose the one spot in all of London at the one time in all of the year when they’d be likely to encounter other suicidal roof-climbers. (One could argue that this was their subconscious desire, but Hornby doesn’t really earn this point.) Anyone could guess that this impromptu meeting would ruin the moment and they’d call off the jump and form sort of a dysfunctional support group. A Long Way Down features the trademark Hornby style: glib humor, numerous pop culture references, a deceptively facile writing style, and self-absorbed characters slowly learning to be more mature and selfless in a difficult modern world. This style began to show some wear in his last novel, How to Be Good, about a troubled married couple’s struggle to live both an ethical and happy life.
You see, Nick Hornby is not satisfied with being smart and funny and entertaining. He also wants to be Serious and Meaningful. Each of his four novels has a progressively greater amount of Seriousness, and a strong case can be made that each novel is a little less successful than its predecessor. (Most readers would agree, I think, that the Hornby ethos is best expressed in High Fidelity, his first novel.)
Hornby is trying to do for a certain type of resident of contemporary North London what Woody Allen did for artsy, intellectual Manhattanites in the 1970s. Allen reached his apex with Annie Hall and Manhattan, those perfect combinations of intellect and humor (or sense and sensibility). But Hornby lacks Woody’s genuine intellectual heft. More troubling, he hasn’t learned that it’s more than enough to be smart and funny and entertaining. We have plenty of darkness and high-minded seriousness in what passes for literature today. Perhaps we need Hornby to be the PG Wodehouse of the iPod generation. Instead, we get increasingly awkward and ill-conceived attempts to marry humor and pathos.
Still, it might work if we were dealing with real humor and genuine pathos. But the comical elements of A Long Way Down are surprisingly ineffective and the pathos is, well, pathetic. Part of the problem is that Hornby has chosen a very difficult narrative technique: alternating first-person narration. A casual, highly conversational first-person voice is generally conducive to Hornby’s style, but in this case he speaks to us directly in the guise of four irritating whiners:
1. Martin (who will surely be played by Hugh Grant in the movie), a disgraced early-morning television talk show host
2. Maureen (perhaps Emma Thompson?), a single mother of a severely disabled child requiring constant care
3. Jess (a slumming Keira Knightley), a foul-mouthed and clearly bi-polar teen who is the most annoying character I’ve encountered in years
4. JJ (think Ashton Kutcher), a 20-something American whose band broke up and girlfriend left him
Although their problems are not trivial (particularly Maureen’s), I didn’t believe for a moment that any of these characters was truly suicidal. Maddeningly, no one in the novel suggests that they might benefit from therapy or medication—the two primary routes to recovery. Slogging through more than 300 pages, one feels that the whole thing could have been wrapped up neatly with a little perspective and a prescription for Paxil.
Maybe instead of Goats Head Soup, this is Hornby’s Stardust Memories. Like a fan in that middling movie says about Woody Allen’s filmmaker character, “I liked his earlier, funny ones.” Me, too.