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Fan in the limelight

British author Nick Hornby has written about sports and music. He's on tour for his new novel, which deals with suicide.

June 15, 2005|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Nick Hornby's room at the W Hotel in Union Square looks, well, lived in. On the desk, a laptop nestles amid a nest of wires, surrounded by loose stacks of papers and books. Atop the coffee table, meanwhile, three or four unopened cans of Guinness occupy a champagne bucket, whether leftover from the night before or in preparation for the one ahead, it's not clear.

Hornby sits by the window in a blue T-shirt, smoking, his small ears sticking out from his shaved head like the handles of a jug. He's here to kick off the American tour for his fourth novel, "A Long Way Down," a black comedy about suicide, and this is Media Day. He's just taken part in an author lunch at BookExpo America, the publishing industry's annual trade show, sharing a dais with Simon Winchester, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Cunningham. While hundreds of booksellers and insiders ate banquet chicken deep in the belly of the Jacob Javits Center, Hornby discussed inspiration, lamenting the tendency of literary types to approach creativity as if it were some intangible windblown myth.

"I used to be a high school teacher, and I hated every minute of it," he said to appreciative laughter. "That helps focus the mind a little bit. My inspiration is panic and fear." It's a refreshingly honest perspective, delivered with no affect; he's just saying what he thinks.

This, of course, is a trademark of Hornby's writing, from his novels to the three works of nonfiction that explore the elusive territory of identification and obsession, the way the things we love (sports, music, literature) make us who we are. As he hunkers down for a series of interviews, Hornby seems remarkably without agenda, a regular guy who has found himself, somewhat unexpectedly, in the spotlight, when all he ever really wanted to be was a fan.

Fanhood has been a driving force in Hornby's work from the outset; his first book, "Fever Pitch," charts his tempestuous relationship with the British soccer team Arsenal, using the team as a filter to get at issues of time and heritage and loss, while the novel "High Fidelity" tracks the influence of music on a record clerk distraught over the failure of love. "I think it's still the thing that defines me," Hornby acknowledges, "and, in fact, the real joy in my professional life is just being able to submerge myself in that stuff."

'Lad lit'

Yet this has also brought about a certain confusion as to his intentions, a misreading of his point of view. Over the years, Hornby has been tagged as a purveyor of "lad lit," his characters maladjusted Peter Pans who refuse to grow up. More to the point, though, they are people -- mostly men, it's true -- who, in the words of the late Lester Bangs, "glimpsed something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once, and perhaps mistaking it for a prophecy have been seeking its fulfillment ever since."

This, Hornby suggests, is the true nature of fanhood, the way it brings us more directly in touch with an idealized sphere of existence, a heightened notion of ourselves. "In a way," he says, taking a long drag off his cigarette, "I think it's not healthy, because it makes you live life at possibly too high a pitch. One of the functions maybe that professional life serves is to act as a kind of padding or deadening so that you're listening to this incredibly intense music, or reading an incredibly intense book, but you're doing it after you've been dealing with naughty kids or trying to sell showerheads, or whatever. So I do think that being able to be a fan all day every day is possibly more emotionally draining than life was intended to be."

"A Long Way Down" is a novel that begins at this point of emotional depletion, although it only deals with fanhood in a peripheral sense. The premise is simple: Four strangers cross paths on New Year's Eve on the roof of Topper's House, an infamous London suicide spot where they've come to kill themselves. For Martin, a disgraced television personality, death is better than seeing himself in the tabloids, or hosting a low-rent cable chat show. Maureen, on the other hand, can no longer bear her life as sole caregiver to her vegetative son, while J.J., a failed rock star, and Jess, a bitter 18-year-old, want to avoid the blank slate of a future that feels like "walking down a tunnel that was getting narrower and narrower, and darker and darker."

It's giving nothing away to report that the four derail each other's attempts at self-destruction; instead, they form a little group, a secret society, in which suicide becomes a fiber of connection, the very thing that keeps them alive. The turning point comes when, while reuniting at Topper's House, the four watch another man leap to his death. It's a profound moment -- less because of what they've witnessed than the ensuing realization that they're not capable of doing the same.

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