Nick Hornby's latest novel, A Long Way Down, is sort of the opposite of the 1983 movie The Big Chill. The Big Chill is the story of old friends who come together following the suicide of a mutual friend; they spend a weekend engaged in introspection and analysis, each using the others as barometers by which to compare the level of his own misery, and finding comfort and direction in the process. A Long Way Down is the story of four strangers who meet on New Year's Eve on a London rooftop where they have all come with thoughts of killing themselves, but instead spend the next three months engaged in introspection and analysis, using each other as barometers by which to compare their levels of misery, finding comfort and direction in the process.
It sounds like a downer, but the book is full of Hornby's characteristic warmth and humor and the characters he creates are compelling, if not always endearing. Surprisingly, the character who seemed most artificial to me was the most Horbyesque character: JJ, a down-on-his luck musician whose band has just broken up and whose girlfriend has dumped him. JJ is a character that Hornby could bring to life with ease... except that this time Hornby made him American. Hornby is quite clearly British to the core; as a result, JJ seems more like a caricature than an actual person. Have you ever seen an American character on a British comedy (As Time Goes By, The Office, My Family, whatever)? They all tend to reflect the British idea of an American - loud, quick-talking, superficial, and cliche. And while many Americans are loud, quick-talking, superficial, and cliche, I haven't met any yet that are exclusively those things - certainly not in that unidimensional sit-com way. My issue with JJ is similar. He is not the same boarish American of BBC-TV, but he talks the way I imagine British people think Americans talk, instead of the way Americans actually talk. And since each chapter of the book is written in the voice and perspective of one of the four main characters, about 25% of it seemed just a half-step off.
Hornby is much more successful in making real Martin, a morning chat-show celebrity who has been in prison and the tabloids for sleeping with a 15-year-old; Jess, the troubled daughter of a government junior minister; and, especially, Maureen, the middle-aged mother of a profoundly disabled young man, who has only the Catholic church as an outside connection in her life.
A Long Way Down is a great read. Fans of Hornby's early work - Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, About A Boy - may be surprised by the greater complexity of this novel, which is similar in tone to 2001's How to be Good. But to me, the only thing really wrong with Nick Hornby books is that there are just too few of them.