Photo by Stephen HydeThe thought of suicide has gotten one through many a bad night, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed, tossing and turning. In A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby has written a novel about four people for whom the thought of suicide is no longer sufficient consolation for the woe that is their lot: Only the act itself will do. Or so, at any rate, they tell themselves, until Hornby talks them down from the ledge. Hornbys previous novels (High Fidelity, About a Boy and How To Be Good) have all been popular as well as critical successes, and his touch has not deserted him. For a novel, A Long Way Down is so absurdly high-concept youre apt to suspect that the film version must have come and gone first, with the book tacked on as an afterthought. On the other hand, the concept is as catchy as a good pop song, a macabre version of meeting cute. Its New Years Eve, dread night for depressives everywhere, and Martin Sharp, a disgraced middle-aged television personality, has taken himself to the roof of Toppers House, a building in London so named (topper is Brit slang for a suicide) because people are always jumping off it. For an hour he sits on the ledge, feet dangling, gazing down at the concrete walkway below while thinking gloomy last thoughts. (Two years ago Martin Sharp was a different person. I still had my job. I still had a wife. I hadnt slept with a 15-year-old. I hadnt been to prison.) Because of all the suicides, a fence has been put up around the roof, but clever Martin has brought wire-cutters and a step-ladder and hes all set to go. Suddenly, someone taps him on the shoulder theres another would-be suicide on the roof! And since she hasnt brought wire-cutters, she wants to know how long hes going to be. (Londons so crowded you have to get in line even to kill yourself . . .) This is Maureen, a middle-aged spinster whos only had sex once in her life, and the result was a severely disabled son she has been taking care of, alone, ever since. (Martin may be down on his luck, but Maureens never had any.) And then, by God, someone else shows up a bitter, irascible, foulmouthed young woman named Jess. Before long, she is followed by JJ, an American rock star manqué, who has fallen into a deep funk after the breakup of his band and the dawning realization that, though music is what he loves, he may not be destined to play it for a living. At the moment, hes delivering pizzas. Its an obviously farcical situation, and rather than kill themselves as planned, the four strangers start warily to converse instead. Its like a script read-through: Whats your motivation? Jess, it turns out, is that shes just been dumped by her boyfriend, Chas. As something to do, and to get themselves back downstairs on solid ground, all four decide theyll go hunt the unfortunate Chas down at one of several New Years Eve parties Jess thinks he may be attending, and then yell at him to make Jess feel better. And so a very odd New Years Eve odyssey begins, and if the four forlorn souls dont exactly bond, they do at least realize that each is a lifeline to the other, and that theyre better off sticking together than not. Soon JJ, the American musician, starts to think of them as a band a pretty sorry band, but still. As Jess might say, What the fuck did you expect? The bloody Beatles? The novel is narrated by each character in turn, a bold strategy that Hornby pulls off ably in terms of moving the story forward. The voices are chatty and colloquial (Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block? asks Martin. Of course I can explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block. Im not a bloody idiot), sometimes to the point of being annoying. The characters swear endlessly, tediously, and then even more tediously apologize to the older, more prim Maureen. There are also too many predictably P.C. slurs against Bush/Blair, thrown in, apparently, like the constant cussing, as symptoms of the characters essential goodness and sincerity. On the subject of misery and depression Hornby talks a good game, but the novels most serious failing is that he rarely succeeds in conveying unhappiness, or of making the reader feel it in his bones. Occasionally, though, he hits the bulls-eye, as in Jess riff on the comforts of corporate anonymity: People go on about places like Starbucks being unpersonal and all that, but what if thats what you want? . . . I like to know that there are big places without windows where no one gives a shit. You need confidence to go into small places with regular customers small bookshops and small music shops and small restaurants and cafés. Im happiest in the Virgin Megastore and Borders and Starbucks and PizzaExpress, where no one gives a shit, and no one knows who you are. My mum and dad are always going on about how soulless those places are, and Im like, Der. Thats the point. Im not sure whether thats about depression so much as a fading sense of individuality, but perhaps they amount to the same thing. Hornby is an unusually likable writer but theres an unreality to his new book that starts on page one and never quite goes away despite his saturating the text with the colloquial and the mundane, which he does with considerable expertise, even on the level of simile. (So the whole conversation is going off course, Jess notes at one point. Its like a supermarket trolley with a wonky wheel, because all the time Im thinking, this should be easy to push along, and everything I say just takes me in the wrong direction.) But the humor, usually a selling point, often seems labored here, and works against the pain it is presumably trying to express. (Id pissed my life away. Literally. Well, okay, not literally literally. I hadnt, you know, turned my life into urine and stored it in my bladder and so on and so forth.) On the other hand, he is quotable. A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mitch Cullins extraordinarily well-written meditation on the great Conan Doyle character and Victorian icon Sherlock Holmes, is a book that lingers in the mind long after the final page has been turned. Though Cullin (Whompyjawed, Tideland) is only 37, he has done an uncanny job of writing about Holmes as a 93-year-old man slowly losing touch with the world and even himself. If nothing else, its remarkable that a novel about a character invented by another writer could feel so utterly real. Is that true? Are you really him? someone asks Holmes in amazement, spotting him on a train. (The year is 1947.) I am afraid I still hold that distinction, the detective replies. You are Sherlock Holmes? No, I dont believe it. That is quite all right. I scarcely believe it myself. A Slight Trick of the Mind is unabashedly literary. The story it tells (Holmes retirement in the Sussex countryside; a trip to post-Hiroshima Japan; his shy friendship with his housekeepers son) is related slowly, leisurely, with close attention paid to nature (about which Cullin writes with great sensitivity), particularly bees (Holmes is a devotee of royal jelly), as well as the complexities of human personality and interaction. Holmes struggles with his memory and diminishing physical powers, as well as his very human inability to comprehend the world, are beautifully rendered. Holmes doesnt rage against the dying of the light; he succumbs to it slowly, puzzling over every last flicker of radiance. Near the end of the book he holds one of his beloved bees in his hand, and gazes down at it. Remarkable creature, he thought, watching as it danced upon his palm. Then he shook his hand, sending it into the air envious of its speed and how effortlessly it took flight into such a mutable, inconsistent world. A LONG WAY DOWN | By Nick Hornby | Riverhead Books | 352 pages | $25 A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND | By Mitch Cullin | Nan A. Talese/Doubleday | 272 pages | $24 Nick Hornby will read from and sign A Long Way Down at Duttons Beverly Hills on Thursday, June 16, at 7 p.m.; at Vromans Pasadena on Friday, June 17, at 7 p.m.; and at Book Soup on Saturday, June 18, at 2 p.m.
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