A Long Way Down
Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down is a pleasant and ingratiating novel, and it shouldn’t be. Nobody does ingratiating like Hornby, the Yank-friendly Brit whose compulsively likable books (About a Boy, High Fidelity, Fever Pitch) feature winning, rueful, self-aware boy-men who cry out to be incarnated by the charming likes of Hugh Grant and John Cusack. A Long Way Down is, however, about suicide (or, at least, deep depression); it’s narrated in alternating chapters by four people who meet via authorial contrivance one New Year’s Eve on the roof of a notorious London farewell spot nicknamed Toppers’ House, ready to jump to their deaths. And guess what? They all turn out to be Nick Hornby characters — garrulous, colloquial, eager to explain themselves, and far too full of life for any reader to fear for them for even a minute.
A Long Way Down‘s grim subject would denote a departure for Hornby — except that, notwithstanding his dark premise, the author, like the troubled foursome he’s invented, has no real interest in taking a transformative leap. It gives nothing away to reveal that, early on, his characters pull it together enough to march down to ground level. Once there, the four of them — Martin (middle-aged subject of a self-made tabloid scandal), Maureen (exhausted caregiver to a vegetative son), Jess (depressed, angry, off-the-rails teenage girl), and JJ (failed American musician whose taste for wide-ranging pop-culture references marks him as such a Hornby archetype that there’s no way the author is going to kill him off) — make a temporary non-suicide pact that extends their joint lease on life until Valentine’s Day.
Hornby’s writing has always been tenderhearted — there are few novelists better at suggesting the redemptive power of using precise, self-deprecating witto articulate one’s own failings — and his generosity toward his characters is almost always an asset. Here, though, his appetite for kindness results in a novel that could not feel less like a matter of life and death, one in which the buoyant tone often seems to be apologizing for the content. The sitcom contrivance of his set-up (four demographically complementary people on the same roof at the same time? Really?) becomes a writing trap; so does his decision to rely on the first person in a story that cries out for some objectivity, since his narrators aren’t very insightful about anything but their own bad moods.
Hornby knows how to darken a moment with a well-turned line, and he struggles vigorously against the sentimentality of his own idea — the perfectly reasonable belief that human connection can save us — by having one protagonist verbally body-slam another whenever possible. (”You thought you were going to be somebody, but now. . .you’re nobody,” Angry Girl tells Failed Musician. ”You haven’t got as much talent as you thought. . .and there was no Plan B.”) His deftness almost conceals the strenuous puppeteering it takes to get these characters onto the roof, off of it, and into one another’s lives. But a novelist using so much skill to write his way out of a mess should ask himself who made the mess in the first place. And suicide — or thoughts of it — probably shouldn’t be this painless.