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
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.
Hornby’s 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 you’re 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
It’s New Year’s Eve, dread night for depressives everywhere, and Martin Sharp, a disgraced middle-aged television personality, has taken himself to the roof of “Topper’s 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 hadn’t slept with a 15-year-old. I hadn’t 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 he’s all set to go. Suddenly, someone taps him on the shoulder — there’s another would-be suicide on the roof! And since she hasn’t brought wire-cutters, she wants to know how long he’s going to be. (London’s so crowded you have to get in line even to kill yourself . . .) This is Maureen, a middle-aged spinster who’s 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 Maureen’s 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, he’s delivering pizzas. It’s an obviously farcical situation, and rather than kill themselves as planned, the four strangers start warily to converse instead. It’s like a script read-through: “What’s your motivation?” Jess’, it turns out, is that she’s just been dumped by her boyfriend, Chas. As something to do, and to get themselves back downstairs on solid ground, all four decide they’ll go hunt the unfortunate Chas down at one of several New Year’s Eve parties Jess thinks he may be attending, and then yell at him to make Jess feel better. And so a very odd New Year’s Eve odyssey begins, and if the four forlorn souls don’t exactly bond, they do at least realize that each is a lifeline to the other, and that they’re 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. I’m 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 novel’s 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 bull’s-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 that’s 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. I’m 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 I’m like,
Der. That’s the point.
I’m not sure whether that’s 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 there’s 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. “It’s like a supermarket trolley with a wonky wheel, because all the time I’m 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. (“I’d pissed my life away. Literally. Well, okay, not literally literally. I hadn’t, 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 Cullin’s 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, it’s 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 don’t 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 housekeeper’s 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 doesn’t 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 Dutton’s
Beverly Hills on Thursday, June 16, at 7 p.m.; at Vroman’s Pasadena on Friday,
June 17, at 7 p.m.; and at Book Soup on Saturday, June 18, at 2 p.m.

LA Weekly