Book Review: ‘A Long Way Down’ by Nick Hornby

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It’s New Year’s Eve, and four very different people head to the top of a building in London with every intention of jumping off. And so, these four strangers find themselves united in their near-plunges off the roof, and in their lives as they move forward beyond that attempt, as a sort of suicidal Breakfast Club for adults.

There’s a high-strung intensity to all of Hornby’s work, and in this, his fourth novel, published in 2005, it’s definitely present. There’s also a quirky autobiographical bent to much of his work, like his obsession with soccer/football in Fever Pitch, or his dogged attachment to music in High Fidelity. It’s easy to wonder how the themes of Long Way Down wandered into and out of his life, but that’s perhaps a little left-of-center here. What we get is a bratty, undeniably English, almost-sweet and surprisingly light novel about suicide. For something that could land with a tragic thud, it goes down surprisingly smooth.

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Our four near-jumpers narrate the tale: Martin is a morning TV host, ousted after sleeping with an underage girl; Maureen is a single mom at the end of her rope, caring for a disabled child who doesn’t even know she’s there; Jess is a spoiled young lady with a rich politico dad; and JJ is a burned out would-be rock star with a new career in delivering pizzas and dreams of a brilliant death that might bring him fame. There’s a lot of comedy and a surprising amount of fun that Hornby milks from the premise of this book — after all, the supposition is that suicide is usual such a horrid and lonely thing, with pills or a gun or a razorblade in the bathtub, all by one’s lonesome. By giving us a meet-up and a twist of fate in these four, there’s a goofy, sardonic joy to it. Martin, for example, is the first on the roof, and Maureen shows up next. When she deduces he’s there for the same reason, she taps him on the shoulder and asks how long he’s going to take.

That’s comedy, from an unexpected, wonderful place. And that’s the engine of this book, as with much of Hornby’s novels and stories. And, in the same way Fever Pitch is about relationships instead of sports and High Fidelity is about growing up instead of records, A Long Way Down is about the impulse to keep crawling forward in life instead of opting to die. Spoiler alert: all four of our heroes leave that rooftop alive…well, at least after that first meeting on New Year’s Eve.

Every day, we choose life, despite sadness, and ridiculousness, and loss and pain and coldness and anger and fear and weirdness and entropy—every single day, we choose to be here. There’s importance and happiness in that. And while there’s a sardonic and occasionally mean-spirited flippancy to Hornby’s writing, there’s a lot of beauty in that sentiment. Hornby refuses to give us pat and Hallmark-y reasons to choose life instead of tumbling over the edge; there are no moments of glory or discovery or redemption here. There’s also not a wanton surrender to bleakness; the point that Hornby makes is that life is, mysteriously, oddly, certainly worth living, even if there are no definitions that make that sentiment easily explainable or digestible.

The movie’s due to hit soon (June 5), starring Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots, and Aaron Paul as our foursome, with Rosamund Pike and Sam Neill along for the ride. There’s a sentimentality to the trailer that bugs me a little; the book didn’t feel as uplifting or self-helpy as this is trying to sell:

That said, those are six actors I love, and casting of three of the four leads is bang-on. I’m always going to see Alan Rickman as Martin, but that’s just me. I’m game. I’m looking forward to it.

So, give it a read. I hope you enjoy it. Don’t jump.