When I found out Nick Hornby had written a young adult novel, I was excited. Partly because I think he’s really good, but also because I thought his signature style and perspective might be perfect for a teenage character.
Hornby has been called the master of the “male confessional” novel, which means his books are usually narrated by an eminently likable, basically decent, self-centered jackass. They tell their stories with deadpan wit and honesty, which makes you feel better about your own self-centered-jackass tendencies. These narrative voices teeter on the edge of twee, but Hornby always pulls the story back to a place that’s a little bit sadder, a little bit more real. Slam surprised me by being a little bit sadder than his others, at least as I remember them.
Sam is 15 when his story begins. He’s obsessed with skating (as in skateboarding, duh), and he tells all his problems to his poster of Tony Hawk (the skating legend, duh). His parents divorced when he was little and he lives with his mom in their flat in London. She’s the kind of mom, Sam tells us with embarrassment, that boys his age sometimes think is, you know, attractive. Which is partly because she’s only 32.
Understandably, a lot of their family ethos is about the long shadow certain mistakes can cast. “Having sex when you’re 15 is a big deal, if you’ve got a 32-year-old mum,” Sam says plainly, partly as an explanation for why he hasn’t yet. His dad loves him and has remained in the picture, but he’s mostly ridiculous as an authority figure.
His mother, whom he has a lovely relationship with, has had to struggle to catch up to other women her age, but now she has a good job working for a local government officer. Sam tells us how his mother’s boss and her husband threw a party, and how he met their teenage daughter there—Alicia, her legs stretched out on the couch in front of her, bored and beautiful. He tells us how crazy he and Alicia were about each other right from the start. Hornby has crafted the story so that you will expect what happens not too long after that, but it will still make your heart sink, guaranteed.
When poor Sam is convinced, but is not yet certain, that Alicia is pregnant, he decides to run away and start a new life. He gets together the 40 pounds he’d been saving for some skate thing and takes the train to Hastings, which, by Hornby’s account, is an amazingly dreary coastal town noteworthy for its battered amusement rides and small hotels with curtains and carpeting that smell like rotten fish. Sam spends a day there trying to find work and a place to live, to absurd and disheartening results.
This is the kind of moment Hornby excels at. Even as he’s making you laugh—and honestly, I had to keep reading parts of this scene aloud to people, it was so funny—he’s also poking you with a sharp little sadness stick. Hastings is the only town Sam could think to run to because it’s the only place in England outside of London he’s ever been to. Remember being so young that all you knew was home and the few places you’d been to on vacation? And not knowing that the places were shabby because you got to have ice cream and go on the rides? That’s how young Sam is, and now he’s going to be a father.
The book is popping with heart-catching, perfect little insights like that. When Sam and Alicia go to their first pregnancy class together they’re the youngest couple there by far. Sam tells us, “When everyone had said their names, Terry divided us up into groups, boys and girls. Men and women, whatever.”
So is the Hornby approach perfect for a young adult novel? I’m not sure. He has done a masterful job of making this story funny and charming in one way but sobering and almost unsettling in another. I can’t imagine a teenager, or an adult, not enjoying it, but it delivers some hard truths about parenthood and life in general. For all its sweetness it has a touch of sad resignation. That sadness, holding its note a bit longer than the other emotions, leaves you feeling that struggle is a thing you can count on, but happiness you have to work at. Definitely not the worst thing for kids to think about—but that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt.