Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2460
Sam, the main character of Nick Hornby’s Slam, begins his story by saying his life is “ticking along quite nicely.” His mum has just dumped her “rubbish boyfriend,” one of his teachers has suddenly suggested he study art in college, and he has a new girlfriend, Alicia. Usually Sam’s life is not quite so great. Usually he has more worries.
Sam is an avid skater (skateboarder). He idolizes the professional skater Tony Hawk, whom he nicknames TH. He has pretty much memorized the book Hawk—Occupation: Skateboarding, and he has a huge poster of TH on his wall. Whenever Sam has trouble learning a new trick or needs to discuss a problem in his life, he talks to his poster and listens to TH’s “answer”—usually words from the book, with a little embellishment from Sam added in.
Sam lives with a single mother in a small apartment in London. If he goes to college as his teacher suggests, he will be the first person in his family to earn a higher qualification at the normal time of life, while he is still young. He notes that, in some families, the children do better in life than their parents do:
But in our family, people always slip up on the first step. In fact, most of the time they don’t even find the stairs.
In his mother’s case, the slipup was Sam himself. She gave birth to him when she was only sixteen.
Sam and Alicia meet at a party for her parents, who are much older and wealthier than Sam’s. The two kids start to like each other pretty quickly, and the next night they get together to go to a movie. They sit at a coffee shop, and later they go to Alicia’s house. When it becomes clear that she wants to have sex, Sam balks. He is a virgin, and his mum’s history scares him a little. He also thinks Alicia probably wants to sleep with him just to get back at an ex-boyfriend she has mentioned. Sam says he wants to go home, and Alicia cries. He comforts her, and they end up sleeping together.
For the next several weeks, Sam and Alicia spend all their spare time together. When he is not around her—which is quite often because they do not go to the same school—he daydreams about her. His mum begins to worry, and one day she insists that she and Sam have to spend the next evening together without Alicia. Sam tries to get out of it, but she insists. He spends forty-two hours without Alicia; he says the experience is “like not breathing.” He goes out for pizza and a movie with his mum, and on the way home she asks if he and Alicia are having sex. He refuses to answer.
The next night, Sam and Alicia are “messing about without putting anything on,” and Sam starts to have an orgasm. He puts on a condom and goes on as if everything is normal, hoping that nothing will go wrong. He says:
What’s amazing to me is that you can keep out of trouble pretty much every minute of your life apart from maybe five seconds, and that five seconds can get you into the worst trouble of all.
Soon Sam’s relationship with Alicia loses some enthusiasm. He starts skating and playing the Xbox again, and they do not see each other every day. When they do hang out, they usually just have sex and watch TV. Once Sam goes out to lunch with her whole family, and her parents make him angry by acting rich and snobby. In a conversation about Sam’s future, Alicia’s mum implies that he has no future. Sam begins to think that it is not worth going out with Alicia if he has to let her parents treat him like “some no-hoper crackhead.” He confides to his mum that he wants to break up, but he does not actually do it. He just stops going to Alicia’s house and leaves his phone switched off.
On Sam’s sixteenth birthday, he gets a text from Alicia that says she needs to speak to him urgently. He tries to avoid her, but she insists. He meets her at a coffee shop, and she confesses that her period is three weeks late. They go to a drugstore to look at pregnancy tests, where they realize they do not have enough money to buy one. Sam refuses to go to his house for the money, so Alicia goes to get money herself. Before she gets back, Sam switches off his phone and goes home. He spends the rest of his birthday feeling terrified. He celebrates with his parents, who tell stories about how difficult it was to be teenaged parents. His parents rarely see each other anymore, and they bicker through the festivities. Sam breaks off the ceremonies early and sits in his room talking to TH, who responds with blurbs from his book about his own son. Sam does not find this helpful.
That evening, something strange happens. Sam suddenly wakes up in a room with Alicia and a baby. Alicia says it is Sam’s turn to get up. He has no idea how to change a baby, so he pretends the kid’s diapers are not dirty. He jiggles the baby around until he calms down. Later he wakes up again, hoping to be back home, but he is still at Alicia’s. He goes downstairs and finds Alicia with a baby she calls Roof. Sam learns that he has to go to college in the morning then take care of Roof in the afternoon. He has no idea where he might go to college, so he just walks around for a few hours. He decides that he has somehow been “whizzed” into the future and that TH is most likely responsible. He muddles through the rest of the day, learning how to change a diaper and discovering that his mother is pregnant. The next morning, he wakes up in his own bed in his normal life. He has no idea why he has just seen what he has seen, but he knows two things for sure: Alicia is pregnant, and he does not want the life that is in front of him.
Sam runs away to Hastings, a beach town he once visited with his mother and some friends. He throws his cell phone into the ocean and looks for a job, but it is the off-season and nobody is hiring. He meets a rude old man who offers to pay him for help up and down the stairs at his bed and breakfast. When the man wakes Sam up at four o’clock in the morning to retrieve a remote control he has dropped behind the couch, Sam decides having a baby could not be worse than this. He realizes he is acting like an idiot, and he goes home.
When Sam arrives at his flat, he finds his mum talking to the police. When they are sure he is okay, the police leave, and Sam has to explain why he ran away. He says he is just stressed out about school, his break-up, and his parents’ divorce. His mum and dad have been divorced for ten years, so this confuses his mum, but she offers to take him to a family counselor to talk about it. Sam realizes he should just tell her Alicia is pregnant, but he does not know how to do that. He goes to Alicia’s house and hides behind a lamppost, too scared to knock on the door. Eventually he decides to go home and pretends to be sick, hoping he can keep doing this forever and stop the future from happening.
This plan works okay until Alicia knocks on the door. When she starts to cry, Sam brings her inside. She is pregnant, and he asks what she is going to do. She says it is his baby, too, and that he needs to come with her to tell her parents. He says he is busy, but she badgers him until he agrees to meet her the following evening. Later, Sam’s mum takes him to a family counselor to talk about her divorce. His dad comes, but he does not believe Sam is really upset about the divorce. He says Sam is upset about something he does not want to admit to. Sam refuses to talk.
When Sam and Alicia tell her parents, they are furious. Her mum demands to know if Sam got Alicia pregnant on purpose to keep from losing her. Alicia explains that she is the one who wants to keep the baby, and her mum asks if they were “too stupid” to use contraception. Eventually they all go to tell Sam’s mum also. Sam rings the bell because he does not want to surprise her. She comes to the door in a dressing gown; she has just come from bed with her boyfriend, Mark. When Alicia’s parents tell her what is going on, she stares at Sam for a long time and then starts to cry.
Soon Sam and Alicia are a couple again, but they are not as clingy this time. Sam goes along to doctor’s appointments, and he and Alicia go to a class together. Everyone else at the class is in their thirties, and one of them is a teacher from Sam’s school. Sam and Alicia are so uncomfortable they refuse to go back. They find a class for teens instead. They decide to live with Alicia’s parents when the baby is born.
Sometimes Sam talks to TH, but TH keeps reciting lines from his book that are not helpful. Sam feels angry and wishes TH would say something that applied to his life. The next morning, he wakes up and realizes he’s been whizzed to the future again. He is in his own bedroom, but he has clothes he never used to own. He meets his little sister, Emily, and tries to take Roof to the clinic for a shot. While there, he realizes he does not know his own son’s full name, so he just leaves, hangs out with his kid for a while, and takes him back to Alicia. He talks to his mum and asks her how he is doing in life, and she gives him a rating of 7 out of 10. He does not know what to do with this information, and he does not understand what good it does him to be whizzed if he still does not know how everything will turn out. The next morning, he wakes up in his own bed again.
A few months later, Sam attends the birth of his son. During labor, Alicia makes noises that sound “like a donkey” and later “like a lion which is having its eyes poked out with a stick.” During a calm moment, Alicia’s mother confesses that in some ways she is glad this is happening. Sam cannot honestly say the same. Even though TH whizzed him, he has no idea how he will cope. Then the baby is born. They name him Rufus, after Rufus Wainwright, whose song is playing.
The next day, Sam moves in with Alicia’s parents. He brings his TH poster and keeps it under the bed, so he can talk to it when he needs to. A few weeks later, the day comes that matches the time when he was first whizzed. This time Sam knows what he is doing, and he changes Roof’s diaper and goes to college properly. While at college, he is confronted by Alicia’s old boyfriend, who claims that Roof his baby. Sam fights the boy rather than simply doing the math and calculating that it cannot be true. He and Alicia have a fight, and he blames her for messing up his life—even though he is now glad, in some ways, that he is Roof’s father.
One afternoon Sam goes out for a meal and drinks with his dad, and he brings Roof along. His dad says Sam and Alicia have no chance of making it. He says Sam should be a responsible dad but not hold himself to his relationship too. Sam and Alicia fight a great deal. Eventually Sam comes down with a cold, and he moves back to his mum’s house, claiming he does not want to keep Alicia awake and make Roof sick. When he gets better, he never moves back to Alicia’s. This arrangement clearly works better.
One day Sam reads on the Internet that eighty percent of teenage fathers in England lose contact with their children completely by the time the kids turn fifteen. He gets angry and marches to Alicia’s house, where they have an inane fight that ends in her saying he can forget about seeing Roof anymore. Her mum intervenes and says Alicia should never make such a threat. In the end Sam and Alicia make up, but Sam keeps living with his own mum.
Mark has moved in with Sam’s mum, and she gets pregnant shortly after Alicia does. Roof’s aunt, Emily, is born several months after him. Sam keeps taking part in Roof’s life. He goes to college, and he and Alicia have sex again just once. Her mother catches them and shouts at them that they do not love each other or belong together, so they should not have sex. Eventually Sam and Alicia agree that this is true.
By now Sam understands his mum’s choice to give him a rating of 7 out of 10 for his life. When he reflects on how he is doing, he gives himself an 8 out of 10 for being a student-parent and all-around decent person. But for his life overall, he only gives himself a 3 out of 10 because “this isn’t what I had in mind. How could it be?”
As Slam ends, Sam is whizzed again. He finds himself on a bus with a pretty girl. They go out on a double date with Alicia and her boyfriend, and he learns that he is working and going to school part-time while helping to take care of Roof and Emily. Learning about his busy schedule makes him tired, but he can see that he is capable of doing what he has to do:
I wouldn’t be sitting here now if I couldn’t do it, would I? I think that’s what Tony Hawk was trying to tell me all along.
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