It was inevitable, after so many books wrapped in yellow covers as bright as their happy endings, that the writer often credited with inventing “lad lit,” or at least lad lit lite, would eventually receive not just a bad review but a scathing one. Scathing, in fact, hardly describes Michiko Kakutani’s review of Nick Hornby’s fourth novel and eighth book overall, A Long Way Down. “A maudlin bit of tripe,” Kakutani calls it, nowhere more so than in the “sappy and predictable ending to [this] sappy and predictable novel.” Her vehemence, however, suggests a willful blindness that, in so single-mindedly attacking the novel’s weakness, perversely points the way to its greatest strength, one that the marketing hype of the dust jacket and author’s Web site entirely misrepresent.
The clue to Kakutani’s blind spot and Hornby’s achievement is in Kakutani’s review of Zadie Smith’s 2005 novel On Beauty. Clearly, Smith’s and Hornby’s novels are quite different, and not just in that Kakutani loves one and loathes the other. Where On Beauty is ambitious to a fault, albeit a fault that has endeared it to many reviewers, A Long Way Down is, marketing hype aside, a decidedly small book in almost every way that counts: language, scope, cast. For all the praise of Smith’s characterizations, it is Hornby’s novel that sticks to human scale.
Hornby’s usual subjects are here: the obsessiveness, the emotional clumsiness, the sense of not belonging and of being a loser. Where this novel differs from the earlier ones is in its extending Hornby’s tinkering with point of view among his four main characters. Martin Sharp is a former television celebrity whose sexual encounter with Danielle (“5’9”, 36DD, fifteen years and 250 days old”) results in the breakup of his marriage, a three-month prison sentence, and his being relegated to hosting Sharp Words on FeetUp!TV, “Britain’s worst-rated cable TV station.” He is narcissistic, sarcastic, fast-thinking, and self-loathing but (this being a Hornby novel) not altogether unlikable, even if he has trouble distinguishing between his two daughters. Maureen, early fifties, is dull, dutiful, and, as a practicing Catholic, guilt-ridden. Her twenty-year-old, severely brain-damaged son, Matty, is less an obligation than a penance for Maureen’s only sexual act, with the fiancé who promptly abandoned her. Jess is the impulsive, foul-mouthed daughter of a junior minister in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government. She is annoying as only an alternately indulged and neglected upper-middle class nineteen-year-old can be. In search of the boyfriend who abandoned her, Jess is no less in search of family. JJ is a young, American musician and autodidact whose accent grates on English ears. After losing his band, then his girlfriend, JJ works illegally for a pizzeriathe least educated among a delivery staff of immigrant doctors, lawyers, and the like.
What brings together this foursome is nothing more or less than each being depressed and showing...
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