Nick Hornby has been the foundation behind a lot of great pop culture in the past decade. He wrote the books behind About A Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity. He also has developed a screenwriting career that has him turning in increasingly impressive work: 2009’s An Education, 2014’s Wild, and 2015’s Brooklyn. While Hornby’s name has always been on my radar, I decided this past Christmas that I needed to sit down and actually read some of his novels. A trip to Bellevue’s Half Price Books led me to Hornby’s A Long Way Down, a title familiar to me due to its recent film adaptation.
The premise is certainly dark: four complete strangers are all about to jump to their death at the same location on New Year’s Eve.
It does not ruin it to say that things don’t go according to plan. In fact, humor is immediately injected into the story when these 4 strangers begin arguing over seemingly tiny yet important things, such as who gets to use the ladder first and second (getting over the the safety fence is a bit tricky, you see), and on to more important things such as why they are up at Topper House in the first place.
Hornby takes a potentially depressing story and makes it something highly readable by giving us four very distinct characters: Martin, a TV personality who’s career is trashed due to some exceedingly poor choices; Maureen, a lonely single mother taking care of her son with special needs; Jess, a young teenager upset about a boy who doesn’t quite love her back the same, and JJ, an American who’s pizza delivery career is preceded by failed rock star dreams. The entire story is only told in first-person perspective from one of the four characters at a time. It’s a really interesting choice that pays off in huge ways – both in laughs and pathos.
I was reading this book at roughly the same time I saw Spike Lee’s 2015 stunner Chi-Raq. What really struck me is how both works of art use tragedy and comedy in ways that contrast each other. Sometimes the comedy is used to leaven the tragedy, and sometimes the tragedy just makes the comedy that much more refreshing and cathartic. Both elements work together in ways that only makes everything richer and more vibrant.
While I have yet to see the 2014 filmic adaptation, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s deeply funny in a way that British writers seem to so effortlessly accomplish, and it has all the emotions you could ever ask for in a story: hope, despair, relief, anger, everything. Empathy is something that, in our internet age, seems to be in short supply these days. This is a fantastic antidote. You will get deep inside the heads of all four characters and see just how they can go all the way from a place as dark as Topper House to a place with bursts of light and resembling hope.