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A Long Way Down

Review

A Long Way Down



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
by Nick Hornby

  • Publication Date: June 7, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 1573223026
  • ISBN-13: 9781573223027