Some writers suffer from what I call the Stephen King Syndrome: They develop a great concept for a book but then, perhaps too proud of their clever plot device, don’t follow through and provide a complete book. Instead, King, et al, seem to lose their interest in the last third of the book and the reader is left, frustrated with the book’s unsatisfying conclusion, with a bad aftertaste like one has the morning after drinking too much tequila.
Again and again I read King novels hoping this time the ending wouldn’t seem so false and abrupt, but it is as if I am sucking on a lollipop only to find a worm in the middle. Yuck! Perhaps it was appropriate that my favorite books by King were the ones that did not need to end so much as move the reader along to the next book in a series, particularly with his Gunslinger series.
I mention this because I was concerned Nick Hornby, in his latest novel, A Long Way Down, might suffer from this syndrome. While previously I would devour Hornby’s books like good chocolate, this time I kept postponing reading it. You see, I really did not want to be disappointed.
With High Fidelity and About A Boy I felt extremely connected to the characters, at times wondering how he got into my brain. I was less impressed by How To Be Good, but a weak book by Hornby is still far better than most books being published.
But over the holidays I decided it was time to read this book and face my fears. It seemed a particularly appropriate time to read the book as it starts out on New Year’s Eve.
The hook is this: One character, despondent over personal issues, goes to the roof of a large building with the intent of jumping off and dying. But three others have the same idea.
Well, they don’t make a bloody book on suicide etiquette, do they? I’m pretty sure there is not yet a Suicide Etiquette for Dummies book. Does one look away while another jumps? Can one borrow someone else’s ladder to jump? These are some of the questions dealt with in just the first 50 pages.
But just as the reader starts to wonder what they have gotten themselves into, reading a whole novel not just about one suicide but four, the characters decide to postpone their suicides to do a particular task.
It will not be ruining the book to tell you that the suicides are repeatedly postponed for this or that reason. Do any of the four ever die? I’m not going to tell you that. I will tell you, though, that with this book Hornby has provided four well-developed characters, each with engaging stories. They take turns serving as narrator, moving the story along with ease and grace. Each has different reasons for contemplating suicide, some of them better than others.
Most interesting to me was Maureen, had sex only once and it produced a boy who is essentially a vegetable. Her whole life is devoted to him and yet he does not seem to even know that he exists. Hornby himself has a son who is autistic and indeed the proceeds from a short story collection he edited last year, Speaking With The Angel, went to autism charities.
One of the other four characters is Martin, a television celebrity who has been disgraced after getting arrested for having sex with a girl who was underage. I did find myself at times wondering if bits and pieces of Hornby’s personality and thoughts went into these characters. Surely he can sympathize with Maureen’s situation, as can I from my work with special needs students. And while Hornby has — thankfully — not been disgraced like Martin, he is a bit of a literary celebrity, more so in England than in America.
While the last half of the book is not nearly as original and enjoyable as the first half, Hornby does avoid the Stephen King Syndrome. I ended the book with a smile on my face, like I had just consumed a well-prepared feast and was eager to see what he would prepare next.