three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
18-Sept-Oct-2005
user_rating: 
0

HighFidelityIt’s New Year’s Eve, and four people stand atop the Toppers’ House in London. There are no champagne flutes or poppers, however. Instead, each has scaled the 15 floors to take the quick route down to their deaths.

Their motivations vary. Martin, a former TV personality, has lost his career and his family after being convicted for sleeping with a 15-year-old girl. Maureen is emotionally and physically exhausted from caring for her severely disabled son for the past 19 years; she can’t bring herself to have him committed, so she’s decided to let the state decide in her wake. Jess is the contrary, foul-mouthed daughter of a government official, confused by her sister’s disappearance and a recent failed romance. Against all these troubles, JJ decides his recent losses of a band and a girlfriend don’t stack up, so he invents a rare brain disease called CCR. John Fogerty would be proud.

Faced with each other’s deaths, the four pledge to hold off suicide until Valentine’s Day. In the meantime they develop an impromptu support group, meeting at Starbucks, toying with the media, taking group vacations, and looking for reasons to live … or, at least, not to die.
Riverhead. 335 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1573223026

Critical Themes

Gallows humor: The premise might scare timid readers away, but Hornby’s affable voice and deeply humane sensibility turn the stuff of depression into "a cello suite about how to go on living" (Boston Globe). As Samuel Beckett said, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." But is the Toppers’ House rooftop just a setup for Hornby to examine another set of loveable misfits? It’s not so much the veil of death that troubles critics as the fear of being manipulated. Of course, manipulation is half the charm of a good read. The reader’s just not supposed to notice.

Growing up: A Long Way Down has already been optioned by Johnny Depp, so Hornby’s string of financial successes seems guaranteed. He hasn’t taken the simple route, however. With each subsequent novel, he’s worked to step out of the lad-lit shadow cast by his early triumphs, Fever Pitch and High Fidelity. But is suicide a more grown-up theme, or is it just a morbid variation on the self-absorption found in his other characters? The New York Times Book Review applauds "his sharp sense of how completely the small idiocies and preoccupations of our lives are entwined with the big, serious stuff."

Ventriloquism: Individual first-person narratives seem the only balanced way to present four distinct cases for suicide. The question remains whether the author has pulled it off. The Dallas Morning News feels that "Mr. Hornby seems to have sent his ordinarily tuneful (and hilarious) ear on a holiday," a complaint echoed by many critics. Those that disagree tend to champion one of the voices as the most authentic (it’s different for every critic, which might say more about the reader than the author) and compare the overall effect to a "prism" (Newsday).

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Hornby has long since proven his hilarity; what this novel confirms is the depth and generosity of his grasp of the tragic. … For a story that begins with one foot off the cliff, it’s hard to imagine a novel more darkly and sublimely devoted to life." Gail Caldwell

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"The themes of Hornby’s other work—love, obsession, popular music, child- rearing, success, loneliness, how to be good (as his last book’s title put it)—are cranked up to 11 here." Emily Gordon

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"… what sounds banal in summary is both plausible and affecting when depicted by Hornby, largely because he allows each character his or her fair share of humanity and humor." Alan Barra

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"The narrators spend much of the book explaining why they feel the way they do and why they made the decisions they did, but because their explanations are so humorous and fresh, this never becomes tedious, and it feels accurate, as an unhealthy level of self-obsession is a chief characteristic of many people who attempt suicide." Jenny Shank

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"I guess some people will be offended at any proximity of humor to the act of suicide, but maybe that is precisely Hornby’s risky point: that suicide isn’t always very deep at all, or at least no more or less deep than the living that leads to it; that it is just as much the province of shallow motives and poor jokes as the rest of life." Chris Heath

San Antonio Exp-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… in pulling his characters back from the brink, Hornby manages to keep a delicious bite throughout the novel, and even manages some level of suspense as to whether the characters will all make it alive ..." Phil West

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"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." Samantha Dunn

San Diego Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"Hornby is charitable to his charges, especially at their least flattering; he pokes fun at but never mocks them, empathizes even as he dissects their shortcomings. He’s also realistic; there are no grand changes of heart in this novel, no swelling moments of self-discovery and happily ever after, just gradual, grudging acceptances." AnnaMaria Stephens

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Hornby’s recent determination to push himself beyond the boyish delights of his earliest work, starting with How to Be Good and intensified here, certainly bodes well for whatever comes next." David Kipen

Denver Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Often the novel reads like a burlesque play, with characters spewing outrageous lines in rapid-fire dialogues while rushing from place to place nonstop, in a series of improbable situations and coincidences. That these characters aren’t able to stay put makes sense considering their agitated frames of mind, but this is a jittery, manic novel." Jean Charbonneau

San Jose Mercury News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The new book brims with insight into the things that push people over the edge (figuratively, if not literally), and Hornby crafts scenes that teeter between hilarity and pain. But the risk taken with the novel’s set-up doesn’t pan out." Charles Matthews

Dallas Morning News 2 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Hornby seems to have sent his ordinarily tuneful (and hilarious) ear on a holiday. One character sounds like the other sounds like the other sounds like the other." John Freeman

Minneapolis Star Tribune 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Hornby never quite succeeds at breathing life into any of these people, and they are given so much space to spout whining, insufferable nonsense …" Brad Zellar

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"In recounting this story that tries so desperately—and ridiculously—to be heartwarming, Mr. Hornby lets each of these characters speak directly to the Reader. … But as the book progresses, even this pretence of trying to write idiosyncratic characters falls away, as each member of the ‘Quitters’ Club’ begins spouting the same brand of inane platitudes and self-help truisms." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Nick Hornby seems to be a likeable guy, which may make critical examination of his work a tricky business for some—not that his alleged personality prevents some well-known critics from outright hooliganism. Sure, Hornby the journalist sounds a lot like Hornby the novelist; that’s part of his charm. It is easy to imagine his early characters as stand-ins for their author. But as he expands his fictional milieu, Hornby’s distinct voice seems to be a double-edged sword. Can that voice be embodied by a 51-year-old Christian and as an out-of-luck American rocker? Can that happen in the same book?

Reviewers cited the novel’s premise as its biggest problem. Most critics overcame the queasy feelings provoked by the implausible setup by retreating to the warm humor of Hornby’s prose and the conclusions he draws from his disparate cast. But many felt that the beginning of the book, with its highly charged scene, left the rest of the meandering plot line to unfurl with just a lot of tepid navel-gazing.

In the end, most reviewers were won over by Hornby’s humanity. In fact, many were downright humbled by what he’s pulled off in A Long Way Down. But in all the reviews there is a sense that the comic novelist shouldn’t attempt serious subjects, or is overcoming a hurdle when he does so successfully. It makes you wonder what they’d say about Mark Twain.