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Friday, June 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Book Review

Hornby's "Long Way Down" takes serious look at suicide

Special to The Seattle Times

"A Long Way Down"
by Nick Hornby
Riverhead, 333 pp., $24.95

Nick Hornby is a stealth writer. He has a knack for wrapping startling insights inside deceptively readable and wildly enjoyable prose. It's serious literature ... no, it's popular entertainment ... no, it's both! Hornby's writing thus serves a dual purpose: It makes you think, but it also makes you laugh so hard that soda sprays out your nose. It's a gift, really.

His previous works (including the novels "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy" and the nonfiction "Songbook" and "The Polysyllabic Spree") are funny and sharp, bittersweet and big-hearted. His new novel, "A Long Way Down," is all that — as well as a brilliant discourse on the unlikely subject of suicide.

It begins one New Year's Eve on the rooftop of a London high-rise, called "Toppers' House" because it's a popular spot for jumping. (To top oneself, in Brit-slang, is to commit suicide.)

Four people are planning to do just that. But misery loves company, and instead of jumping, they meet and spend the night talking. The book is told through the alternating voices of these four spectacularly unreliable narrators — a technique well suited to Hornby's intimate, chummy style.

Coming up

Nick Hornby will read from "A Long Way Down" at 7 p.m. June 14 at the Neptune Theater, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle. Tickets are free with a purchase of the book, otherwise $5. Sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

This Not-So-Fab Four:

Jess , the unstable teenage daughter of a prominent politician. Her family never recovered from the disappearance years earlier (murder? suicide? abandonment?) of Jess' sister. Jess has become, in response to this trauma, a foul-mouthed, drug-loving anti-intellectual who says what's in her head without filtering it first. Sometimes what emerges is perceptive; sometimes it's just garbage.

Maureen , a mousy and cramped woman who cringes at foul language. Her whole life has been devoted to caring, virtually without respite, for her profoundly disabled adult son. (Maureen's story is heartbreaking enough, but its poignancy doubles if you've read Hornby's quite beautiful writing about his own autistic son.)

Martin , a semi-famous has-been. He once co-hosted a national morning TV show and was a happy husband and father. But then Martin had sex with an underage girl, the press found out, and life and career slammed to a stop. Now he's a lonely guy whose only job is interviewing nobodies on FeetUp!TV, "the world's worst cable station."

JJ , an American rock musician whose band broke up and girlfriend dumped him. He thinks he'll never play again and is reduced to delivering crummy pizzas. (Hornby, famous for his obsession with pop music, voices it here through JJ, who makes explicit the analogy between the suicide-wannabes and a rock band.)

During that first night on the roof, the four realize the need to stick together, misfits but bonded by sadness. As Martin says,

"Even though we had nothing in common beyond that one thing, that one thing was enough to make us feel that there wasn't anything else — not money, or class, or education, or age, or cultural interests — that was worth a damn; we'd formed a nation, suddenly, in those few hours, and for the time being we wanted only to be with our new compatriots."

They agree to meet again in six weeks, on "the next popular night" for suicide — Valentine's Day. They do, but other stuff happens as well.

When word of their nonsuicide pact reaches the media, they become celebrities for a split-second. Jess obligingly makes up an absurd story for the press about how they saw an angel. (He looked like Matt Damon.)

They also find ways to hang out despite their incompatibility. They form a book club that reads only authors who have killed themselves. They vacation in the Canary Islands. Both attempts end poorly, but even more disastrous is a group intervention that Jess organizes in a Starbucks.

The novel doesn't so much end as taper off — the suicidal fogs lift, good (or at least not terrible) things happen and there are hints of redemption. Hornby's too smart and aware of real life to wrap it all up neatly, but the reader is nonetheless left with a sense that ... well, that every cloud has a silver lining.

Not one of the four narrators is someone I'd particularly want to be friends with, but they held me captive and I rooted for them all the way. This, I think, is a testament to the writer's skill. "A Long Way Down" is a daring high-wire act, and Hornby pulls it off perfectly.

Seattle writer Adam Woog's column on mystery and crime fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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