A Long Way Down

I love Nick Hornby. I love his novels (High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to Be Good) and I love his monthly column about reading. I like the way he treats his readers, mostly with kindness and wit. He has an excellent understanding of how difficult it can be to get through a book that everyone else is calling wonderful. If you can only read two paragraphs a day of a thousand page biography of Churchill before falling asleep then you'll finish it - well, never. He advises if you're really stuck and not enjoying a book stop trying. And don't feel guilty about it. He's also the only other person that I know of, besides me, who admits he talks to the authors of the books he's reading as though they're in the room with him. How many times have I told a long dead author I don't approve of the treatment of their character or a best-selling author of religious suspense that his book is awful and he's got to be kidding me? Enough times that when Mr. Hornby said he does the same thing I breathed a sigh of relief. His books are a joy to read, even the one about football (Fever Pitch), a subject that previously left me cold, so naturally when I spotted a novel of his I hadn't read yet called A Long Way Down I carried it off in triumph and read it straight through, stopping only long enough to share favorite bits with my family.

A Long Way Down is a fascinating, hilarious novel about suicide. I know, I know, believe me, I know how that sounds. But it's true. I don't even know how many times I ended up laughing until my abs hurt. It takes a deft hand to write so well about such a grim subject but the author manages it.

The book is told from the perspectives of four different (very different) people who meet on the top of a building on New Year's Eve purely by accident. Martin climbs up first. He's like the British version of Regis Philbin, famous for his morning talk show. Or he was; now he's famous for an illegal act with a minor that netted him some prison time and ruined his career. Everywhere he goes people call him names, he can't see his children, and his wife divorced him so why not end it all? Isn't that the practical thing to do?

But while he's sitting on the other side of the fence erected to keep from doing what he's thinking about doing along comes Maureen whose life has been on hold for the last nineteen years. She is a single mother with no support system and a profoundly disabled son who isn't even aware of her existence. She can't face going on any more so she's going to politely wait until Martin is done then get on with it.

Until Jess comes roaring along the roof and tries to butt in front of both of them and fling herself off first. Martin and Maureen stop her by tackling her and sitting on her head and they learn a little of her story. She's an 18-year-old art school dropout who's a little crazy and reckless and is quite bummed out partly because she ended up at an awful party in what's essentially a crackhouse. Jess is there looking for someone called Chas but he's not there.

It's with characters like Jess that Nick Hornby really shines because she isn't a sympathetic character at all, she's rather horrid, but he explains her in such a way that you find yourself thinking, yes, that makes sense. For instance Jess explains that she's not really stalking Chas because "It's only phone calls and letters and e-mails and knocking on the door." She then goes on to say she hardly ever goes to his work and she doesn't follow him through the streets or into shops or when he goes on vacation so it can't be stalking. And anyway, he owes her an explanation, which is like being owed a lot of money. Certainly collection agencies are allowed to call you and send you mail and go to great lengths when you owe them money so obviously you should be able to do the same thing when someone owes you an explanation.

Next to arrive is JJ, an American who shows up with pizza. He's a musician whose band broke up shortly before his girlfriend dumped him and now he's delivering pizza with people from other countries who are doctors and brilliant chemists in their home countries but can't get a decent job in England. And he feels worn down and ground down and can't imagine spending another fifty years feeling like this so he's planning to jump also. But when he hears why the others are going to do it he feels stupid, especially following Maureen's troubles so he tells them he's dying of a disease he invents on the spot, CCR, which is, of course, the initials of a band.

After some discussion, the foursome decide they're all going to help Jess by going in search of Chas, a decision that has some unexpected, but funny, consequences. Later that night they make a deal that they will all survive until Valentine's Day, at which point they'll reassess. Interestingly Mr. Hornby doesn't take the easy path: his characters don't suddenly see the light, they don't instantly change their lives, and they don't become happy after narrowly escaping death. Instead they act like real people and go on being confused, angry and frustrated. I absolutely loved this book and you can give it a try by reading a free excerpt available here.

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Paul Muolo who reviews the 'Dream Girls' (DVD) saying, "Eddie Murphy mugs it up as a Motown singer on the decline. And no, he didn't deserve an Oscar, much less an Oscar nomination. (He didn't win.) The real star of the movie, hands down, is Jennifer Hudson as one of the 'Dream Girls.' Think Diana Ross and the Supremes. (The movie is about the rise of Motown Records, though -- for legal reasons, I assume -- it's never called Motown.) Ms. Hudson was nominated for best supporting actress and took the prize. Beyonce plays the Diana Ross role and is passable but overshadowed by Hudson. The faux Motown music is decent but if you want real Motown check out the originals from the '60s: Smokey, The Supremes, The Temptations, and The Four Tops." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.