Nick Hornby,
A Long Way Down
(Riverhead, 2005)

If forced to sum up Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down in a word or two, I would say it is "rather average." Every now and again the plot is entertaining. Some characters I liked, others I didn't. And I find myself at the end of the novel completely unchanged, in that I hardly learned anything I didn't already know before, and therefore my daily routine and everything about me will basically remain the same. Already, I have escaped into another piece of Brit lit -- for the curious, Ian McEwan's Saturday -- and surely within a month or so memories of Hornby's stab at suicidal dark humor will be just about gone, if not completely.

Published in 2005, A Long Way Down stars four lead characters -- Martin, Jess, J.J. and Maureen -- of various ages and backgrounds who unexpectedly meet one another on New Year's Eve atop London's Topper's House, a site famed for the significant number of folks who gingerly climb up to its roof and think their final few thoughts before plunging to their deaths. Due to a series of distractions, all of which the characters basically make up for themselves and each other, suicide is taken off their radars. To Martin, Jess, J.J. and Maureen, welcome to the new year.

Soon after, a pact is made within the "group" -- a term that a few in the foursome fail to identify with given their differences -- and it is decided that they will continue living not just through New Year's Day, but for the next six weeks. Now, the "six weeks" isn't some arbitrary figure, but in fact marks Valentine's Day, which is the second-most popular day for people to take their lives. (New Year's Eve, of course, is the most popular day). What follows is their conversations and meetings with one another, as well as efforts to patch up the negatives in their lives for originally wanting to commit suicide.

Hornby uniquely pens the story through four first-person accounts. Every few pages or so, the narrative switches into the mind of a different main character, conveniently marked by a bolded name -- either Martin, Jess or what have you -- above a new block of text. This way, Hornby doesn't show favoritism towards one character by focusing the story around him or her. Instead, all four leads get equal play.

However, the plan backfires when characters undeserving of the limelight receive exactly that. More specifically, I am referring to Jess, a female, and apparently the youngest in the group, which ages from late teens (Jess) to early 50s (Maureen). Jess is not very smart and insists on inserting a "like" between every other word. She means well, but comes off rude, and constantly creates stupid arguments with the other three. If I were to label one character as Hornby's comic relief, she would be it, although she's far more annoying than funny. And unfortunately, 25 percent of the story is told through her eyes.

And I did expect some humor if a novel is to be dubbed a dark comedy, although the laughs were few and far between. One running gag is for the characters to accidentally swear, and then turn to their side and apologize for the slip to Maureen, a religious woman who doesn't exactly warm up to curse words. It more or less works the first few times, but Hornby just keep using it again and again and again.

So I wasn't particularly fond of this Hornby offering. My only other previous experience with him was in High Fidelity, which I noted as being faulty for his focus on a loser character, and not for his style. Here, the reverse is true. Three-quarters of the main characters held my interest, but Hornby's style seemed to backtrack in the 10 years that lapsed between High Fidelity and A Long Way Down.

review by
Eric Hughes

27 September 2008

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