'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 Hornby, A 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.
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.
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.