I’d been warned by a friend (Sean Ferguson of blindingloud.com fame) that Nick Hornby pulls this mean trick where you read High Fidelity, think it’s great, run out and purchase more of his books, only to find that his first novel was his best (by a wide margin). I should have listened to this friend.
A Long Way Down tells the tale (from different first-person perspectives) of four people who plan on throwing themselves off the top of a high building on New Year’s Eve: Martin Sharp was the host of a popular morning show until he slept with a 15-year-old, ruining his marriage and career; 51-year-old Maureen is a single mother who spends all of her time taking care of her special needs son, Matty; 18-year-old Jess Crichton is lonely and can’t connect with her family after the suicide of her sister; and J.J. is an American musician who toured London before splitting with both his band and his girlfriend, Lizzy. Problem is, none of them can get the solitude they want for their final moments, so they make a temporary pact to stay alive.
This may sound like an eclectic mix of characters, but alas, three of them are simply Hornby rehash: Martin is the standard aimless yet obsessive protagonist; Jess is the standard opinionated and annoying cohort; and J.J. is the standard tie to music who just lost his girlfriend. The only one who’s really forging different territory for Hornby is Maureen (and I’m sure if I could remember About a Boy more she wouldn’t be so unique). Additionally, Hornby’s attempt to differentiate the characters’ voices only serves to water down his usually casual-cool style. With that said, the way the characters interact often works well, and their different circumstances/reasoning for suicide play off well against one another. Maureen ends up being the best character, because unlike the others—who, to varying degrees, chose their misery—she really is trapped into taking care of her special needs son, making her a great sympathetic character.
Another thing I appreciated was the way the meaning of the title changed. At first, ‘a long way down’ refers to the distance from the top of the building to the impending death waiting on the sidewalk below. Later, ‘a long way down’ refers to the longer time it takes to walk down as opposed to jumping. Neat trick there. In truth, when I reflect upon A Long Way Down, there are a lot of aspects I enjoyed, but it just wasn’t that enjoyable to read. Maybe it’s that Hornby on repeat hits the law of diminishing returns, maybe it’s that suicidal characters are hard to follow because they don’t want to do much, but A Long Way Down didn’t have near the impact it should. Read High Fidelity instead. Two stars.