Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: "A Long Way Down" (Nick Hornby, 2005)

“Jess thought for a moment. 'You know those films where people fight up the top of the Empire State Building or up a mountain or whatever? And there's always that bit when the baddie slips off and the hero tries to save him, but, like, the sleeve of this jacket tears off and goes over and you hear him all the way down. Aaaaaaaaagh. That's what I want to do.'

'You want to watch me plunge to my doom.'

'I'd like to know that I've made the effort. I want to show people the torn sleeve.” 
― Nick HornbyA Long Way Down

Nick Hornby's "A Long Way Down" is my favorite novel of last year, never mind that it was published eight years previously.  We rebellious spirits let a book rest on the shelf a while before headed to the second-hand book shop or the library to take it down.   The novel concerns four disparate characters living in and around contemporary London who happen to meet on the top of a tower block in the metropolis on the same night (New Year's Eve) with separate intentions to jump off the top of the roof and end their lives.

The main characters are Martin Sharp, the former host of a popular British morning talk-show,  who  loses his high-flying career, his marriage and contact with his daughters after the tabloid press  outs him for having a sexual relationship with a 15 year-old girl.  The fact that she was 150 days from sixteen and  just under the legal age of consent, also lands him in prison.   When we meet Martin he feels he is at the end of his rope, reduced to hosting a talk-show on a network (Feet Up TV!) whose  ratings are abysmal.  Martin is the most well-educated and once-successful of the group, but to my mind a character as vulnerable as any of the rest with the added problem of being recognized by many strangers, some of whom are both jealous of  his former success, and verbally reminding him of his fall  from celebrity.  

There is also Jess, the rebellious teen-aged daughter of a junior Cabinet Minister. She has issues with authority figures, says what is exactly on her mind at all times (in contrast to the circumspect  father she dislikes) and has recently been dumped by her boyfriend.  It is the quest to find Jess's loutish ex-boyfriend
at a party that (and for her to confront him face-to-face with some direct questions and vulgar insults) that  gets the four would-be suicides the initial quest which binds them together.

“A man who wants to die feels angry and full of life and desperate and bored and exhausted, all at the same time; he wants to fight everyone, and he wants to curl up in a ball and hide in a cupboard somewhere. He wants to say sorry to everyone, and he wants everyone to know just how badly they've all let him down.”
― "Martin Sharp" , A Long Way Down

J.J. is the one ex-pat in the group, an American and the former member of a rock band, The Yellow,  which never  quite made it and has now broken up, although  one of the former members has now gone onto success as a solo performer.  He is also shy one former lover, a girlfriend who be believes left him because he who longer fronted a touring band.     Deprived of working in a recording studio and convinced that he has no chance to "be someone", JJ decides to end it all by diverting from his evening rounds, delivering pizzas from a London restaurant.

The fourth protagonist is a fifty-something single lady, Maureen ,who has given up her job to look after her severely disabled teen-aged son, a task that has given her no little private time whatsoever, and no hope that her son will ever progress beyond an almost catatonic and child-like state.  (She checks the young man, Matty, into a clinic on her way to end it all and then, after a change of mind, she goes back to caring for him in her small flat.)  She is the only religious character in the book, and never swears, the latter trait being much to the amazement of the others.
“How do people, like, not curse? How is it possible? There are these gaps in speech where you just have to put a "fuck." I'll tell you who the most admirable people in the world are: newscasters. If that was me, I'd be like, "And the motherfuckers flew the fucking plane right into the Twin Towers." How could you not, if you're a human being? Maybe they're not so admirable. Maybe they're robot zombies.” --J.J.

 In the hands of a more overly-sentimental  writer, this might be a film that would take the easy route and show the reader that each of these character's sufferings  could be alleviated  by mutual support  and good fellowship. But Mr. Hornby will not let us all the hook with such a well-trodden path.   The sting of self-destruction and the hard-business of people putting their oft-desperate and damaged lives back together makes for a four -person journey that is both unique for each of the main characters and where their  support for one another often backfires and brings them to get one one another's nerves as much as soothe their fears and compensate for their lonely or unfulfilled lives.

The  book is quite funny at times and has its share of penetrating, common- sense insights into the human condition.  Hornby has a matter-of-fact writing style that leaves no room for easy answers. But he also gives his characters in "A Long Way Down" an affirming sense that while suicide is a route taken by some, it is neither an inevitable destination for all who seriously consider it, nor are people as alone and unique in their distress as they might feel. Even in a dark rooftop at the top of a building in a lonely but crowded city, one distressed person or four might just  find odd reasons (and odd people) to argue, laugh, frustrate and make happier for a time of a life  with.

There will soon be a film version coming out in March of "A Long Way Down" with Pierce Brosnan as Sharp,  Toni Colette as Maureen, and Rosamund Pike as Jess.  One hopes it will be faithful to the original story.


  1. Just stopping in to wish you a very happy and prosperous new year Doug. I hope to be around more now that things have calmed down in my world. Hugs

    1. Thanks Lia. And the very same to you!

  2. Hi Doug

    I read "A Long Way Down" on holiday about five years ago. I'm a fan of Nick Hornby anyway, and really enjoyed the book - in particular because (as you say) Hornby doesn't allow it to become overly sentimental and happy ever after.

    I didn't know they were making a film of it, so thanks for the heads up... It's a promising looking cast

    1. Hi High Heavens--

      Glad you enjoyed the book as well. Yes, the cast does look good for this one and I was pleased to see it was being made into a film. I had no idea it was when I started writing this brief review , so that was an added bonus.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I have never read the book, but it sounds like one I should read being in the business, so to speak. I suspect the film will not live up to the book but very nice for Nick Hornby all the same I'm sure. Having said that I think most cinematic attempts at Alice in Wonderland have done justice to the book, but that's neither here nor there is it? I am aware of Nick Hornby's existence through stuff on the radio mostly but know nothing of his work from direct experience, so it was very interesting to read your review Doug. I've always liked literary realism, I wonder how Hornby compares with Jean Paul Sartré who is one of my favourite realist novelists?
    I'll have to take time to make the comparison Doug (I suspect Hornby is a bit funnier than Les chemins de la liberté is though). Thanks for the heads up :-)

    1. Thanks AA. This is the first book I've read by Hornby. From what I've read of Sartre, Nick has him over a barrel in the humor department. Jean-Paul might make up for it in philosophy.

  4. Hi Doug, I just came by to wish you a Happy New Year and hope you enjoyed the holiday :-)

    1. Thanks Loretta. And you too. Sorry for my tardy reply.

  5. I've read that book. It was really good. Great review!