Suicide wasnt invented for people like this, JJ says in A Long Way Down, referring to three poor sods who, like him, are prepared to celebrate the new year by chucking themselves off a building. It was invented for people like Virginia Woolf and Nick Drake. And me, he continues. Suicide was supposed to be cool.
Nick Hornbys mordant, oddly comic fourth novel opens thus in London, atop a building called Toppers Place, infamous for being the starting point of countless pavement dives. Four disparate characters have shown up, ready to off themselves for various reasons: Martin, disgraced TV personality; Maureen, mother of a severely disabled son; Jess, foulmouthed daughter of a government minister; and, of course, JJ, whose music career ended not with a Cobain-esque bang, but how Cobains wouldve had he never made it out of the garage. Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) allows each to narrate the story in round-robin fashion, demonstrating a previously unseen talent for quiet moments of revelation, subtle and honest character growth and, while he hasnt given up on his penchant for pop culture like an imagined angel who looks like Matt Damon he keeps the references to a minimum this time out.
Bound together by misery as they are, the motley lot ultimately takes a temporary pass on suicide and forms a gang of sorts part-suicide watch, part-dysfunctional family. When youre really sad, Toppers House sad, you only want to be with other people who are sad, Jess points out. Rather than pontificating about the reasons his characters have to live, though, Hornby offers up an existential meditation on how to live. Or at least get by in a world thats just about as absurd as the books high-concept premise.
For a novel that begins with one foot toeing the abyss, its difficult to imagine one more committed to the long way down from a roof, or the imaginary precipices we all find ourselves staring down from sometime or another.
Cole Hadden writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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