If there were a demographic study tracking the gender balance of Nick Hornby's readers, I'd lay bets it would substantiate this anecdotal observation: Despite Hornby's reputation as a manly writer, a real guy's guy, a GQ type probing the inner workings of the mysterious masculine drive for sex without commitment, guilt-free passion and ball sports as a reason for living, Hornby's biggest fans are women. Never mind that his first book, a memoir of his life as a soccer fan called Fever Pitch, expressed at least an occasional preference for a football match over a date with a woman and that the women in Hornby's books tend to be one-dimensional nightmares or saints. Hornby has since written two novels, and both of them – the 1995 High Fidelity (which The New Yorker called a book about “sex and manliness”) and his latest, About a Boy – offer the same solace women seek in self-help books: confirmation that, while men are indeed fucked up when it comes to love, they're no more tortured, frightened or vulnerable than women are, and certainly no more in control. True to the eternal paradox of storytelling, which dictates that the closer a writer hews to the minute detail of a character's emotional life, the more a universal that character's appeal, Hornby's dedication to specifics and gift for truth produce male characters in which women recognize not just men they know, but themselves.
About a Boy features as its central character Will Lightman, the kind of guy who still wears skinny Levi's and brand-name sneakers, still knows where to find live music and which bands to listen to, still hasn't thought seriously about a long-term relationship. Chronically low on ambition, admittedly short on self-reflection, Will lives comfortably, if not quite shamelessly, off the royalties from “Santa's Super Sleigh,” a Christmas jingle his father wrote in 1938. Will takes a magazine quiz to determine his level of cool and ranks high: Even though he loses two points for failing to bed a woman who's been featured on a newspaper's style page, he gains those points back for having sold his Springsteen records.
Will's solitary, selfish life is a source of frustration to his married friends, although readers are given enough evidence to understand that Will, much like High Fidelity's lost soul, Rob, is most of all scared – of failure, of success, of heartbreak, of the future. Will may not admit it out loud, but in his heart are stirrings of awareness that he's nearing the point in his life when his coolness quotient ceases to matter, when fear of commitment starts to become pathological and a man loses his grasp, almost by hormonal fiat, on the mysteries of new-band theory. In other words, given the right set of bizarre circumstances, he might just be ready to change.
And change he does. It's not, however, for the noble beauty of the right woman, but by the accidental force of a 12-year-old boy. In a support group for single parents that goes by the acidic acronym SPAT (Single Parents – Alone Together), where Will has hoped to find a single mother to replace the one who just dumped him with a refreshing absence of pain and guilt (“It's not you. You've been great. It's me. Well, my situation, anyway”), Will meets a tall blond named Suzie. In a bungled attempt to impress her, as well as to augment his veneer of cool by doing the right thing, he winds up entertaining Suzie's clinically depressed friend Fiona – who's as much a fantasy of a bad date as Suzie is a dream – and her weird son Marcus, the badly dressed, frizzy-haired, bespectacled misfit whom substitute teachers ridicule to gain favor with the bad kids. After an outing or two in which it becomes clear to Marcus that Will's not likely to marry his mother, Marcus preserves his new acquaintance by turning up, uninvited, on Will's doorstep every day after school. Will's too passive, and too bored, to resist, and by increments the two develop a friendship, if for no other reason than to take up space in their respective days. Only later does it become clear that their relationship is necessary.
About a Boy is, of course, about two boys: one grown up and childlike, another a grown-up child. It's almost as if Will is the adult version of the school kids who relentlessly harass Marcus in the hallways, and following some twisted karmic law, the two have been thrown together to effect mutual redemption. While Will and Marcus are still uncertain of their usefulness to one another, Marcus gets a crush on a 15-year-old girl named Ellie, a younger version of Hornby's imagined cool-girls. Ellie defies school policy by sporting a sweatshirt imprinted with a bleached-haired, half-bearded, Jesus-like image she tells Marcus is footballer Kirk O'Bane. Marcus hasn't heard of anyone named Kirk O'Bane, but Will has. Playing Nirvana's In Utero for his new young friend, Will realizes, suddenly and clearly, what he has to offer a 12-year-old whose hippie mother eats no meat and croons Joni Mitchell songs earnestly with her eyes closed: “He wasn't able to tell Marcus how to grow up, or how to cope with a suicidal mother, or anything like that, but he could certainly tell him that Kurt Cobain didn't play for Manchester United, and for a 12-year-old boy attending a comprehensive school at the end of 1993, that was maybe the most important information of all.”
For his part, Marcus lends substance a to the otherwise shallow and empty-lived Will, which becomes especially important when, at a New Year's Eve party, Will falls in love – suddenly and completely – with a woman named Rachel. As it turns out, Rachel, with whom Will would otherwise have nothing in common, has a son about Marcus' age. And Will, who's avoided feeling anything resembling love in the entire expanse of his adult life, finds himself stumbling blindly in Rachel's direction, using Marcus as his reluctant prop.
Unfortunately, it's with the introduction of Rachel that About a Boy, which started to unravel as each new character drifted further from Hornby himself, becomes less of an amusing portrait of the intimacy-impaired and more of a self-conscious work of romantic fiction. Rachel illustrates children's books, looks “a little bit like Laura Nyro on the cover of Gonna Take a Miracle – nervy, glamorous, bohemian, clever, lots of long, unruly dark hair.” She does not, so far as Hornby lets us know, lose her temper, make fun of fat people, eat noisily or treat waitpeople rudely. She does not judge him harshly, even though she probably should; she feels no jealousy about other women in his life and, in fact, benevolently sets him up for a long talk with Fiona for the benefit of Marcus. She, like Suzie from SPAT, is in every way above reproach, and consequently, above reality.
Strangely, for a man who writes about men with such emotional acuity, Hornby has no clue how to write a realistic woman. He clearly admires them, loves them, respects them: In Hornby's world of gender politics, attractive women almost always call the shots, and the good ones – which is to say, most of them – keep their lives afloat against all odds when the men around them fall apart despite every advantage. They rarely lie without irresistible provocation; they have delicate crow's-feet and beautiful hair and hearts full of generosity and love. The rare bad ones – impossibly desperate Fiona, the renegade teenage Ellie – are laughable cartoons (but even at that, they got that way because they were victimized by irresponsible dads). Hornby doesn't allow us to feel for them; from Will's point of view, they're mere foils in the game.
Which would be fine if About a Boy followed the lead of High Fidelity, where Rob sorts through the detritus of his love life, effecting reunions with every single ex-girlfriend from puberty on up; the women in that book remained peripheral, deliberately crystallized memories or caricatures – a recent shadow of a lost love, a glamorous college art-girl sweetheart, a hilarious American folk singer who talks too frankly about casual sex. But About a Boy makes women central, important, active, and at the same time robs them of any power they have to screw up a relationship on their own. And though it absolves women of responsibility for making a mess of the world, it also takes away the invitation to commiseration that High Fidelity offered by assuring women that men suffer as women do, even if it doesn't look like it from the outside. Instead of proving that it takes two to play the love game so pathetically, About a Boy sets out to show that it's all the man's fault. Even in a comic story of an overgrown adolescent learning to love, truth should be a lot more interesting than that.