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A Long Way Down
by Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books
333 pages, $35.00

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted June 22, 2005

Leave it to Nick Hornby, the popular British author of High Fidelity, About A Boy, and Fever Pitch, to write a book about suicide and manage to make it funny. And sad, and moving, and poignant, and provocative. But not brilliant. Not quite.

A Long Way Down opens on New Year’s Eve on the roof of “Toppers House”, a tall North London building popular among suicides, where Martin, a forty-something, erstwhile TV host is dangling his feet over the ledge. Maureen, a dowdy, 51-year-old single mother, queues up behind him, but Martin steps aside to accommodate her. Ladies first and all that.
Before either can jump, however, teenaged Jess comes barreling past, intent on taking a running leap off the roof. Martin instinctively stops her, and he and Maureen insist that she is too young to have sufficient reason to end her life. As they debate this point, a pizza delivery guy shows up. This is J.J., an American rock musician who initially pretends to have come up to the roof just to get some air, but later admits he too was intending to jump.

This unlikely foursome forms a reverse suicide pact and embarks on a series of improbable adventures that takes them from the pages of sleazy tabloids to a vacation on Tenerife and eventually, back to the roof of Toppers House.

Each of the four protagonists takes turns telling the story from their own perspective, a tidy way of showing how different they are from each other, and yet how similar. Hornby is primarily known as a “lad lit” writer, but the protagonist of his last novel, the superb How To Be Good, was a woman, so he has shown that he can step out of the male psyche and still be successful. None of these characters, however, has quite the depth of any of the protagonists from his earlier novels.

In the past, Hornby has demonstrated a deceptive profundity, but there is a certain shallowness here, a sense that the situation is too easy and coincidental. Yes, it makes sense that these four very different people might form a bond that night, but stretching that relationship out for weeks afterwards becomes hard to believe, especially as we get to know each of them better.

A Long Way Down may not be the best book to take to the beach this summer, but thanks to Hornby’s characteristic wit and sharp eye for the absurdities of contemporary life, this book is still a very entertaining read.

Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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