The first book that I read by Nick Hornby wasn’t High Fidelity or About a Boy or Fever Pitch, even though those are the titles that he is most known for. Instead, the first Nick Hornby book that I read was his YA novel Slam, about a teenager obsessed with Tony Hawk who ends up being a teenage father. The next time I picked up one of his books was when Juliet, Naked was released in 2009, a book about a woman named Annie who is dating a man who is a fan of the musician Tucker Crowe. It wasn’t until this year that I finally made it back to Hornby’s earlier books, when I found a stack of them in a used bookstore.
One of my favorites was Hornby’s A Long Way Down, a book about four very different people who all find themselves on a rooftop on New Year’s Eve, all of them up there with the intention of jumping off. There is Martin, a TV personality who has since slipped into degenerative celebrity since being caught sleeping with a fifteen-year-old girl; JJ, an American living in England and working as a pizza delivery boy, depressed enough to pretend to be living with a terminal illness as a way to make his depression seem more justified; Jess, a seventeen-year-old girl who has just been deserted by her boyfriend Chas; and Maureen a middle-aged mother with a handicapped son. Hornby moves from perspective to perspective, braiding the four characters together at the same time that he unwinds their individual stories.
A Long Way Down had a distinctly YA feel to me, and aligned with the way I felt reading Hornby’s YA novel Slam. I’m not sure if it’s the inclusion of two younger protagonists (Jess and JJ), or the subject matter that seems to widen the potential audience for this book, but it seemed like something that would appeal to teenagers as well as adult readers. Hornby’s humor is on display here as well, and he has a lot of material to work with as he describes four very nuanced characters. At first it seems as if the entire book is going to happen in one night, covering the span of New Year’s, but then it slowly expands over a longer stretch of time as the book goes on. I really liked the immediacy of the “one night” story at first, but liked it even more when these four individuals continued to keep in contact over the several months that follow the night that they met.
Hornby describes the Toppers’ House rooftop as famous in London as a suicide destination, and I think it’s Martin who describes that it’s the perfect height to ensure that it does the job. Hornby creates four distinct voices – none of the characters ever start to sound the same or run together – coming from backgrounds that are dissimilar enough that they all have a different reason for trekking to Toppers’ House on New Year’s Eve. Maureen is the second to arrive, after Martin:
“And then I saw Martin, right over on the other side of the roof. I hid in the shadows and watched him. I could see he’d done things properly: He’d brought a little stepladder and some wire cutters, and he’d managed to climb over the top like that. And he was just sitting on the ledge, dangling his feet, looking down, taking nips out of a little hip flash, smoking, and thinking, while I waited. And he smoked and he smoked and I waited and waited until in the end I couldn’t wait anymore. I know it was his stepladder, but I needed it. It wasn’t going to be much use to him.”
Jess joins them next, “roaring towards” Maureen and Martin as they negotiate who gets to use the small stepladder next. Jess says,
“I shouldn’t have made the noise. That was my mistake. I mean, that was my mistake if the idea was to kill myself. I could have just walked, quickly and quietly and calmly, to the place where Martin had cut through the wire, climbed the ladder, and then jumped. But I didn’t. I yelled something like ‘Out of the way, losers!’ and made this Red Indian war-whoop noise, as if it were all a game – which it was at that point, to me anyway – and Martin rugby-tackled me before I got halfway there. And then he sort of kneeled on me and ground my face into that sort of gritty fake tarmac stuff they put on the tops of buildings. Then I really did want to be dead.”
Hornby’s humor mixes with an exploration of depression and unhappiness, and the reasons why suicide suddenly seems like the only option. He uses four characters and four distinct backgrounds in order to navigate the separate threads of depression, and draw them together in one story. I loved A Long Way Down – it’s my favorite Hornby book so far – and have Housekeeping vs. the Dirt on hand to reread next.
(Also, I’ve just discovered that A Long Way Down is going to get a movie adaptation soon!)