Four very different sets of shoes flank the cover of Nick Hornby's new novel, A LONG WAY DOWN. Brown wingtips, sloppily tied Vans canvas classics, sensible old lady shoes, and scuffed boots represent the characters whose accidental meeting on the roof of Topper's House in London begins the story. Why these four have decided to jump and how they muddle through carries the plot and, in Hornby's affectionate yet ironic hands, carries it very well.
The four take turns confiding in the reader via short narratives labeled with their names: Martin, Maureen, Jess, and the lone American JJ. Martin begins with typical British impatience. "Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block? Or course I can explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block. I'm not a bloody idiot." He is the fed-up-from-trying-to-make-his-way-back-after-a-prison-stint owner of those brown wingtips, creased at the toes but respectably polished. Next up is Maureen, who has earned the right to her sensible-old-lady shoes (and perhaps her death wish) by 20 years of caring for a son so disabled that he can't walk or talk or even understand the monologue his lonely mother persists in anyway. Jess is the spitfire in the sloppy Vans, the teenaged, profane, explosive daughter of an education minister and spurned lover of Chas, the immediate excuse for her climb to the roof of Topper's House. JJ arrives at this screwed up New Year's Eve party, pizza in hand, thinking about suicide because his band has broken up and his girl has left him; without music and his girl, what's the point?
Behind the venomous scorn Jess and Martin display toward each other, we feel their desperate need to belong. Having agreed to hang on until Valentine's Day, they become a kind of reluctant gang. "Rule 1: We don't kill ourselves for six weeks." Here's Jess, when Martin demurs: "I hadn't felt like I was in this gang either, until that moment. And now I belonged to the gang that Martin didn't like much, and I felt real committed to it."
The pace is snappy, sprinkled with splendid British slang: toffer, spliff, bloke, bleeding, eejit, geezer, snog, shag. It's hard to believe that a book about suicide can make you laugh. And wince. The characters may not be honest with others, but they are honest with us on the page, and their tentative, hard-won shifts in philosophy win us over. Wending their way through a shared vacation, an intervention in the basement of a Starbucks, a real suicide, and an almost-fistfight egged on by an intellectual homeless person, each character's predominant traits (Jess - outrageousness, Martin - self-serving and self-loathing, JJ - wistfulness, Maureen - wounded primness) worms their way into our hearts. By spring, all four have cobbled together their own reasons for going on, from the mundane to the profound.
Hornby clearly has his fingers on the pulse of several generations and social classes. Maureen delights her quiz team with the knowledge of the name of Mary Tyler Moore's boss, while Jess refers to "proper shoplifting: boosting Winona-style, bags and clothes and s---, not pens and sweets." Perhaps most sad and touching is Jess's surprise that "Pop Idol" judges are fallible after all. Everyone steps back, reconsiders, changes. Says JJ, toward the end: "Busking isn't so bad. OK, it's bad, but it's not terrible. Well, OK, it's terrible, but it's not…I'll come back and finish that sentence with something both life-affirming and true another time."
A LONG WAY DOWN is riveting, hilarious and very moving. Nick Hornby is at the top of his form.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 13, 2011
A Long Way Down