A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby. Riverhead, 333 pages, $24.95.
Suicide is one of those societal ills everyone feels comfortable looking down on: It’s a cop-out, a death for wimps, the unnecessary result of insanity or self-absorption. Even the utterly unreligious will speak of it as a sin.
Still, there are some who find suicide a rather comforting thought (you know, should things get really bad), and regardless, the whole business, the idea of ending your own life, is fascinating. As Nick Hornby proves in his fourth novel A Long Way Down, suicide-in this case, flinging oneself off a building to the concrete below-also takes a lot of guts. Up there on the roof, living starts to look sort of easy. It’s pretty hard to do, letting go.
It’s especially hard when other people are up on the roof with you, vying for a spot on the launching pad. In Mr. Hornby’s brazenly contrived conceit, four Londoners find themselves on New Year’s Eve gathered on the roof of Topper’s House, one of the most popular venues for self-offing in the whole metropolis-the Golden Gate Bridge of Britain. Ostensibly, Mr. Hornby is teasing out whether someone’s life is awful enough that, actually, they’re better off dead. It’s a great idea.
Up for consideration: Martin, a talk-show host who shagged an underage girl, spent some months in jail and lost his family (not that he minded that part of it, really); Maureen, an older woman whose son was born a vegetable; JJ, an American, a pizza-delivery boy and a failed musician (O.K., real quick: Men on failing to “make music” is never, ever interesting); and Jess, an 18-year-old spoiled brat who complains of a broken heart.
That’s in order of their bearability. Martin is the classic Hornby character, the witty Hugh Grant variety, and most of the author’s cleverness naturally goes to him. Bitchy, stupid Jess, on the other hand, seems to have been stuck in to be obnoxious and keep the book from becoming too, too saccharine. Or to serve as the attractive young woman who’ll be played by Keira Knightley in the film.
It’s boring but unavoidable to note the blandly cinematic quality of Mr. Hornby’s novel. Plenty of authors write novels hoping to spin Hollywood gold, but it’s less forgivable in someone who’s talented and has already seen three of his books on screen (get over it!). There’s a feeling of inevitability in this book, a weary sense that no matter what Mr. Hornby does-whether he labors over a particular paragraph or not, whether he fiddles with some flat dialogue or lets it alone-the book will still be a hit and he will reap the rewards. (As will Johnny Depp, who bought the film rights-and thank God: That guy might actually render suicide with the darkness it deserves.) This isn’t to suggest that Mr. Hornby seems happy or triumphant about all this. On the contrary, he’s faint of heart. The thrill is gone.
“Even though we had nothing in common beyond that one thing,” Martin, the pedophile, explains, “that one thing was enough to make us feel that there wasn’t anything else-not money, or class, or education, or age, or cultural interests-that was worth a damn; we’d formed a nation, suddenly, in those few hours.” Yikes. And Martin’s the most skeptical of the bunch. It’s worse than laying out the obvious in plain, cheesy terms; Mr. Hornby is pleading with his reader, and he would do better on Oprah.
The morbid foursome abandon the roof of Topper’s House to go searching for Chas, the man who broke Jess’ heart-clearly the least of anyone’s problems, not to mention the silliest reason for suicide. (Jess and Chas slept together once or something.) Still, it’s Keira Knightley! When Maureen, the old biddy, punches out Chas-all of which reminded me of The Daytrippers or some such odyssey-in-a-station-wagon flick-all is lost. Then Jess takes a whack at Chas too, and Mr. Hornby cuts to the next scene.
More plot developments: The quad-four strangers bonded by their desire to die-tell a journalist they saw an angel who looks like Matt Damon; go on vacation together and have no fun; form a book club, forgoing Virginia Woolf; and share in an intervention at Starbucks, staged by Jess, in which everyone’s loved one shows up and they all stand around and drink lattes and attempt to talk about their issues. At this point, all I could think of was the hospital scene in Parenthood, at the end, with all those weepy characters standing together, gazing at … a baby.
Mr. Hornby has always come dangerously close to too cute, but he’s generally sharp enough to rescue the whole thing from gooiness. That wit is still here, and when it strikes, it’s deadly. “We passed a ghastly-looking bar called New York City,” he writes, when the group is on vacation. It’s a completely random line amid vigorous dialogue, an instance of Mr. Hornby’s brilliant and unpredictable timing. In another scene, when JJ’s about to partake in the requisite fight with his former bandmate, his girlfriend accuses them of having a Butch Cassidy thing. Out of nowhere, a homeless man standing nearby pipes in, laughing: “Did you ever read Pauline Kael on Butch Cassidy? God, she hated it.”
Mr. Hornby is most reliably funny when writing about Martin, the dry, jerk-trying-to-make-good type that Mr. Hornby does best. What was so remarkable about High Fidelity was that it wasn’t all zing and lightness. Unexpectedly, it could turn serious and insightful-with real, quirky depth. Here, Mr. Hornby turns on the funny first: “I once drove a new BMW into a wall,” he has Martin, who’s talking about infidelity, say, “simply because I needed to explain a four-hour delay in getting home from work. Cindy came out into the street to inspect the crumpled bonnet, looked at me, and said, “You’re seeing someone else, aren’t you?” And then, with just a few careful lines, he describes that look of hurt on the wife’s face, the one that cuts Martin so deeply that he would say anything to try and avoid it. Lying about infidelity never made so much sense!
But the good bits get lost in a lot of other lazy stuff. Mr. Hornby knows he needs to serve up a happy, glowy cheap ending, and he can’t even bring himself to make his characters’ journey to choosing life remotely tortuous or daring. Whereas in his earlier novels, the lengthy interior dialogues were lovely and entertaining, in A Long Way Down, the soliloquies come off as purposeless. Too boxed in by his own conceit, Nick Hornby can’t block out the big-screen version of his ideas, even as they’re unfurling. What he needs is an intervention, but-despite a great riff on the wondrous anonymity of chain stores-let’s hope it’s not in Starbucks.
Suzy Hansen is a senior editor at The Observer.