A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby
8/10, a darkly humorous (laugh out loud at times) novel with four main characters and an unsatisfying ending
If there’s one thing Nick Hornby does well, it’s characters. I can’t remember the name of the record store clerk in High Fidelity, but I can’t forget his penchant for making lists, nor his hiding in shame in a neighbor’s flower bed for most of an afternoon. Marcus from About A Boy (whose name I only remember because of the wonderful movie) and his intelligence and inability to fit in are as memorable as Will’s self-enforced isolation from the same book. Even Fever Pitch features the narrator himself as a character charting his own fortunes with those of his favorite team, Arsenal.
A Long Way Down is no exception. Hornby branches out to four characters this time, all so well drawn that he might have entirely omitted all the dialogue attributions. The interplay and dialogue is terrific between Martin, a fallen former TV personality; Maureen, a despondent housewife; Jess, a precocious and outspoken teen; and J.J., an American ex-musician. They all meet on the roof of a notorious suicide spot on New Year’s Eve, having gone there with the intention of enhancing its reputation. Through an amusing series of events, they talk each other out of their suicide attempts, but if you were expecting that they would show each other the value of their lives immediately and renounce the thought of suicide, you don’t know Nick Hornby. They are only postponing their suicides, because the moment has clearly passed.
The thing is, that little secret bonds the group together despite their wishes to fade to their respective blacks. Jess is the energy in the group, but Maureen is really its focus, and they are such different people that their interactions remain fun and real throughout the book.
The problem with the ending is that Hornby sets up the characters to say that they aren’t going to make any big changes in their lives. This sort of paints him into a corner. By the end of the book, the characters have changed frustratingly little, and even a cute metaphor with the London Eye (which you almost have to have seen to appreciate) can’t save you from the feeling that there’s more to the story–or that there should be. In all the books I mentioned above, the characters change and grow in believable ways over the course of the book. Here, I think the setup almost doomed him: you want to feel by the end of the book that none of them will contemplate suicide again. But if he were to present that, it would invalidate the premise by implying that their original reasons for committing suicide weren’t substantial. Hornby being the talented writer that he is, he does as well with that premise as one could hope, and while I loved the journey, I wanted more from the ending.