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The lowdown from an author perched on high

A Long Way Down: A Novel; Nick Hornby; Riverhead Books: 334 pp., $24.95

June 19, 2005|Samantha Dunn | Samantha Dunn is the author of the memoirs "Faith in Carlos Gomez" and "Not by Accident" and the novel "Failing Paris."

The publisher of Nick Hornby's fourth novel, "A Long Way Down," reports in the media kit that the book is already being made into a film with Johnny Depp, translated into a dozen languages including Greek, garnering starred reviews from the snottiest of New York book critics and will have no fewer than 175,000 copies on the first printing alone. All this is to say that this British author is indeed a long way up, a skyscraper in the landscape of popular literature.

Good for Nick. Congrats and all that. But if you're reading this and you are also, maybe, a writer who (1) feels lucky just to have some books available in English, let alone in another alphabet, (2) doesn't have a sloe-eyed, super-wattage star lining up to put your novel on the screen, and (3) has a publisher moving your next book straight to paperback on the first run because there's a niggling doubt that you'll sell even 5,000 copies in hardcover -- well, the list of Nick Hornby's successes might tend to stick your own modest achievements in the basement. Which will, of course, make you want to hurl yourself off the roof of the Standard hotel downtown (where you have been known to slurp martinis during happy hour).

How ironic that "A Long Way Down" should inspire such an act, considering that the book is about suicide. Or, rather, the weak attempt at it made by four people who seem to have nothing in common, apart from running into each other on a London rooftop, from which each has planned to leap on New Year's Eve.

There's Martin, a TV personality disgraced as a sex offender; Maureen, a meek, 50-ish lady and good Catholic, whose dreary life has been dedicated to caring for an incapacitated son; Jess, a foul-mouthed teenage girl who makes Kelly Osbourne look like Lady Di; and one leather-jacket-wearing American, JJ, who wants to kill himself because his band broke up, making rock stardom unlikely. (And, yeah, his girlfriend left him too. But that band thing was going to send him over the edge.)

It's no spoiler to reveal that the four of them do not jump. The only death in the story doesn't involve the protagonists. Instead of offing themselves, they form a kind of motley support group that swindles the muck-racking media with a half-baked story about being saved by an angel who looks like actor Matt Damon; then they go on an ill-conceived beach vacation together and share an awkward "This Is Your Life"-style reunion with their respective families and significant others at a Starbucks.

OK, so the plot's construction is on the level of a Quonset hut. And the way it's told -- in a round robin of alternating viewpoints -- is the least successful narration technique that Hornby has yet attempted. Narrators with limited self-awareness who recount past events narrow the lens through which the reader can become emotionally invested in the story. Moments of insight, however poignant, often come across not as authentic realizations but as footnotes from the author, who wants to make sure that the reader is getting the point. Hornby seems most adroit in the voice of JJ, who, while explaining why he was planning to jump, already knows that a large part of his existential malaise is the burden of his generation: "Making something isn't good enough for us, and neither is selling something or teaching something, or even just doing something; we have to be something.... But having talent is never enough to make us happy, is it? I mean, talent is a gift, and you should thank God for it, but I didn't...."

This is the true, beautiful pulse of "A Long Way Down": Underneath the pitch-perfect banter of his dialogue and his fluent pop-culture lingo, Hornby laments the out-of-whack values of our culture, in which loneliness and purposelessness create the metronome beating out the days. He seems to say that this alienation -- which allows you to think that killing yourself because Warner Bros. didn't option your work is almost reasonable -- is our collective context, like water to a fish.

Hornby's characters have lost, through their own callow ignorance or through circumstance, the belief that they are connected to anything or anyone. The extent to which they are redeemed equals the degree to which they're able to value their own lives. The way they come to that is in appreciating the value of others. The "long way down" isn't the jump from the building, it's doing the job of going down the stairs one step at a time. What Hornby does veddy, veddy well -- and what has earned him fame in works such as "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy" -- is to convey an earnest, sincere belief in the humanity of others without becoming a sentimental cornball or creating fake, tidy solutions for the messy, all-too-human failings of his characters. Maybe Hornby deserves that view from the top of the skyscraper.

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