A Long Way Down

by Nick Hornby
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A Long Way Down

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1258

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.

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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 uptwo by design, two by chanceon New Year’s Eve at a building known as Toppers House because so many people have flung themselves from its roof. As Hornby has pointed out, A Long Way Down is not really about suicide. It is about people whose sense of self-worth has hit rock bottom (another “long way down”). These four are not even real would-be suicides. Martin has come prepared, knowing he would need a ladder and wire cutters to breach the fence constructed to prevent suicides, but once over the top he sits on the ledge and starts drinking. Maureen has made sure Matty will be taken care of that night and subsequent ones, but the extent of her preparations ends there. Jess never intended to attempt suicide, only to search for her ex-boyfriend at a party in a building she did not know was a known suicide spot. JJ just happens to be delivering pizzas at the building.

Until page thirty-six, the four characters’ stories are more or less separate. After that, each is interwoven with the others, advancing here, backtracking there, complementing this, correcting that. The suicide plans of each having been scotched by the presence of the others at Toppers House, the four form a tentative band of sorts on an episodic odyssey that takes them to a party in Shoreditch, to Martin’s flat in Islington (where the usually abstemious Maureen vomits the wine she drank at the party and where Martin’s sometime lover Penelope has been awaiting his return), and from there to a café for breakfast. Having nothing better to do, they agree to meet again on Valentine’s Day. The following day, however, when a tabloid newspaper runs a story linking a former celebrity and a minister’s daughter in a suicide pact, they all find themselves thrown together much more quickly than they had hoped or planned. The four never quite form a cohesive group but, thanks in large part to Jess’s efforts, they do stay together like a genially dysfunctional family. Taking an approach borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, of living one day at a time, they make it first to Valentine’s Day, then to a 90th Day party, after which the future is unclear.

Martin is still alive but still very much Martin, splendidly cynical about the underclass youth named Pacino whom he mentors. Jess has taken up with an old geezer she names Nodog, who is, in fact, a step up from her father, the consummate technocrat and politician. JJ is happysort ofwith his new life as a busker. Maureen has a job at a newsagent and a place, as an alternate, on a pub-quiz team. These are minor triumphs, to be sure, ensuring nothing, or at least very little, making the book’s ending at once more tentative and more believable than the endings of Hornby’s three earlier novels. There is more than a note of whimsy and willed optimism, weighted by the slight but persistent echo of Samuel Beckett’s grim and grimly funny existential credo, “You must go on I can’t go on I’ll go on.” At novel’s end, JJ asks, “I’m sorry. I was just wondering, you know. Why we’re still here”the “here” meaning both still alive and at Toppers House for their 90th Day party.“Thanks,” said Martin. “Thanks for that.” In the distance we could see the lights on that big Ferris wheel down by the river, the London Eye. “We don’t have to decide right now anyway, do we?” said JJ. “Course we don’t,” said Martin. “So how about we give it another six months? See how we’re doing?’ “Is that thing actually going around?” said Martin. “I can’t tell.” We stared at it for a long time, trying to work it out. Martin was right. It didn’t look as though it was moving, but it must have been, I suppose.

The ending is a little sweet but forgivably so, for two reasons. First, it is entirely in keeping with Hornby’s overall vision of the contingency of human life. Second, whatever symbolism Hornby may have intended, the monstrous size of the tourist attraction known as the London Eye, a high-tech Ferris wheel referred to as an observation wheel, serves to underscore the human scale of Hornby’s work. The sudden leap from Topper’s House has been replaced by a slow, step-by-step descent to solid ground. Martin, Maureen, Jess, and JJ will probably make it, not quite together, but not quite alone either.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

The Atlantic Monthly 296, no. 1 (July/August, 2005): 148.

Booklist 101, no. 14 (March 15, 2005): 1246.

The Boston Globe, April 22, 2005, p. D6.

The Christian Science Monitor, June 28, 2005, p. 17.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 5 (March 1, 2005): 249-250.

Library Journal 130, no. 7 (April 15, 2005): 73.

Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2005, p. E3.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (June 12, 2005): 26.

People 63, no. 22 (June 6, 2005): 49.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 14 (April 4, 2005): 41.

USA Today, June 23, 2005, p. D7.

The Washington Post, June 26, 2005, p. T06.

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