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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Hornby's 'Long Way Down' not up to scratch : Book Review : Features : DAILY YOMIURI ONLINE (The Daily Yomiuri):

Hornby's 'Long Way Down' not up to scratch
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
A Long Way Down
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books, 352 pp, 24.95 dollars

Perhaps it is the result of seeing so many liberties taken in adapting his previous works for the silver screen (About a Boy, High Fidelity), but Nick Hornby's latest novel, A Long Way Down, reads more like a preliminary draft of a screenplay than an actual novel.

The premise is pure Hollywood pitch meeting: Four disparate characters, all intending to kill themselves, meet by chance at the top of a London high-rise on New Year's Eve, form a bond and proceed to try to fix each other's lives. It's sort of like The Breakfast Club meets Harold and Maude meets The Apartment.

The quartet of would-be suicides are: Martin, a disgraced, sarcastic and self-loathing TV host; Maureen, a middle-aged single mother who has devoted her entire adult life to caring for her apparently vegetative adult son; Jess, a lovelorn and disturbed attention-seeking teenager; and JJ, a failed American musician whose band has broken up.

Hornby tells the story in first person, switching perspective among the four characters every few pages, occasionally giving more than one version of the same events. The problem is that the four voices are not sufficiently different from one another.

Hornby has tried, unsuccessfully, to vary the tone and style, but the variations seem cosmetic, like a storyteller varying the pitch of their voice to suggest dialog by different characters: Martin is self-involved and caustic, but erudite. JJ is a bit bland and needy. Jess is invariably foulmouthed while Maureen is bothered by and never uses obscene language to the extent that she bowdlerizes the salty language of the others when recounting conversations.

And there are plenty of conversations. The majority of the book consists of the four characters describing their various meetings and interactions, with little time spent describing what they do on their own. For the most part, Hornby gives us a series of set-piece meetings of the four told from shifting perspectives, interspersed with expository monologues by each character detailing their reaction to the meetings.

Each of the four protagonists seem to serve fairly transparent nonnarrative purposes for the author, especially JJ, who, as an American and a musician, allows Hornby to make a number of comic observations on the absurdities of British life, rock 'n' roll and the music business. Martin's fame and disgrace allow the author to tee off on the tabloid media and the shallowness of television. As Hornby is himself the father of a severely autistic child, some of Maureen's frustration can be read as autobiographical.

Oddly enough, it is Jess, the character Hornby bears the least evident resemblance to, who rings the most true. With her, the author presents a believable portrayal of the attributes of a troubled teenage girl without resorting to maudlin cliches or stereotypes. Jess is alternately spoiled and ignored by her upper middle class parents, whom she affects to despise. She is both naive and knowing, tender and vicious. Jess is the one who pushes the others forward along the arc of the story.

Hornby takes what on the surface promises to be either a very dark and emotionally harrowing story or an inspirational story about the power of love and friendship and refuses to allow it to become either one. Darker moments are leavened with black humor and comic asides, and Hornby's innate cynicism keeps him from allowing things to get saccharine. In the hands of a lesser craftsman, this book could have been a disastrous moan-fest or a sappy Hallmark card. It is neither.

Nor is it a complete success. Hornby seems to have solved the problem of walking the tightrope by not moving too suddenly or too far. He keeps the precarious balance between laughter and tears by not delving too deeply into either. Dividing the narrative voice among the four characters seems to water down the emotional investment the reader makes in each of them. By the end of the book, we are not really that bothered about whether they jump or not.

In High Fidelity, the reader is amused by the digressive riffing on pop music and the smart dialogue, but is made to care about the eventual fate of the main character. While the tangential discourses in A Long Way Down on everything from the nature of rock stardom to the benefits of anonymous chain coffee shops are entertaining, Hornby fails to draw the reader far enough into the heads of his four protagonists to build an emotional attachment. It is as though the author is waiting for actors to breathe real life into the roughly drawn characters he has presented. Ultimately, A Long Way Down fails to live up to the promise of Hornby's earlier work.

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