by Christine Fischer Guy
Reading a Nick Hornby novel is like having a chat in a pub with a witty, garrulous friend. He leans in close, addressing you directly; you can almost feel his hot breath on your neck. There's the wink-wink, nudge-nudge intimacy of a long friendship, and the instant intensity that goes with that.
But if the self-deprecating, brutally honest voice makes you laugh, it would be a mistake to say that Hornby writes for pure comedic value, or that his purpose is insubstantial. Each of his four novels has been a darkly humourous musing on depression in its various guises. A Long Way Down, a farcical black comedy, marks a natural progression along this trajectory, opening with the suicidal intentions of the book's four characters as they meet on the roof of a London tower block popular with citizens looking for a final way out.
Toppers' House is such an infamous spot, in fact, that the rooftop is encircled by a spiky-topped wire fence. One of the four, a sardonic, defrocked talk-show host, is nevertheless enterprising enough to bring wire cutters and a stepladder. Tapping on his shoulder to inquire about the loan of the ladder is Maureen, a middle-aged woman who has spent her entire adult life caring for her severely handicapped son and has planned her death months in advance. As the two sort out the arrangement, sixteen-year-old Jess, the foul-mouthed, unstable daughter of a Labour minister, charges at them, hollering her intention to beat both of them to the punch. With the addition of JJ, a struggling pizza-delivering American musician who just lost his band and his girl, the set is complete.
Suicide, it seems, is best accomplished in solitude, and all four lose their nerve because others are present. They agree instead to try to help young Jess, whose main trouble is romantic, and after eating the pizza JJ has provided, they descend the steps of Toppers' House to find the boy in question.
At a certain point the plot teeters, as if on the edge of a rooftop, threatening to topple toward certain doom. The four characters have decided not to jump; now what? Other characters who come in contact with them question this improbable coalition of the Toppers' House Four as if Hornby is trying to work it out himself. The story hobbles along briefly and then breaks into a full run, veering sharply into farce, as this unlikely crew grapple with Life After Topper's House. They become a post-suicidal posse, and find themselves in a variety of bizarre situations involving a media interview about their (faked) angel sighting, a vacation in Tenerife, a Topper's House reunion in situ on February 14, and a book club that reads only suicidal authors. Their regular gatherings at Starbucks culminate in an American-style "intervention", complete with former lovers, parents, and friends. The potential here for black humour is enormous, and Hornby doesn't disappoint.
Hornby has said that his books begin with situations: a guy invents a child to meet single women (About a Boy), a married man gives ú80 to a homeless person (How to be Good). In A Long Way Down, the meeting of potential suicides at a popular offing location becomes a means for bringing together four characters who would, ordinarily, never have occasion to meet. The creative advantage of this situation is the fact that the usual social rules don't apply; each has already decided to opt out in the most explicit way. But how long will it be before they coalesce and produce a new social order? In Hornby's imagined world, even the foul-mouthed teenager is apologizing to the middle-aged woman for her language within a few days, and here Hornby's vision of unregulated humanity is diametrically opposed to that of William Golding (in Lord of the Flies). A Long Way Down suggests that when left to their own devices outside the usual social norms, people will behave decently and help one another survive.
As the characters grudgingly retreat from the brink and its purgative allure, the heroism of daily living emerges as a thematic thread. JJ wryly remarks that Maureen is taking "the long way down" when she descends the staircase again on Valentines Day, and she observes that "there are other ways of dying, without killing yourself." If A Long Way Down is aphoristic, it's only so in a teasing way, as though Hornby wants to poke fun at the idea that truth should be revealed in pithy narrative.In his world, humour and pain coexist easily and necessarily.
Hornby has done well for himself with the intimate, first-person reflections of the twenty- or thirty-something male (the voice in High Fidelity is particularly well sustained and truthful), but his female characters in this book are less convincing. Jess's mature and perceptive observations are implausible at times; in comparison with Miriam Toews's Nomi (from A Complicated Kindness), whose youthful, profane voice rings with the wisdom of deep sorrow, Jess is flighty, less mature, and her musings don't ring true. Maureen's acceptance of her sad lot in life is also puzzling. She is positioned as the stable centre of the group who never erupts, although she has plenty of reasons for doing just that.
A Long Way Down has a filmic quality, which isn't surprising considering that screenwriting was Hornby's original career aspiration. The plot is largely driven by snappy dialogue; reading without imagining it on-screen is difficult. (Three of his books have been adapted to film; Johnny Depp reportedly bought the film rights to this novel before it was even published.) A Long Way Down is Breakfast Club meets Weekend at Bernie's with a British accent, a delicious, darkly humourous romp and an enjoyable read. It isn't as technically finessed as High Fidelity, but as long as Hornby writes the screenplay, all should go well.