In his quiet way, Nick Hornby is writing some of the most elegant and ambitious prose in the English language. “A Long Way Down,” released this summer, is the story of four people who meet on the top of a tower block where they have each gone with the intention of committing suicide. Like his other books, this one is characterized by a careful vernacular style, a lack of inordinate or oppressive sentimentality, and an astonishingly delicate sense of narrative progression. There is nothing implausible, nothing unearned, nothing romantic or fanciful, and the result is a keen and honest new novel.
The task of narration falls equally to the four principal characters. There is Martin, whom we encounter first, the former host of a prominent television program who has ruined his career and his marriage by sleeping with a 15-year-old girl. There is Maureen, the reclusive mother of a severely disabled child. There is JJ, a failed American musician who finds himself stranded in England after parting ways with his girlfriend, and there is Jess, an obsessive and volatile young adult.
The reasons these characters give for their decision to end it all are, by and large, compelling and reasonable. The concept of depression is invoked very seldom, and only Jess seems motivated by some form of mental illness. Martin has no wife, no job, no prospects; he’s been to jail for statutory rape, and he is routinely insulted by strangers who recognize him on the street. Maureen is a slave to a child who will never pronounce her name. JJ has failed at the only thing he ever wanted to do and finds himself facing a grim 50 years of anonymity anad mediocrity. Even Jess, violent and bizarre as she is, is coping with the mysterious and devastating disappearance of her older sister.
The problem that Nick Hornby sets for himself is the following: These are not people who are tormented by delusions or hallucinations or insupportable psychic agitation. As Martin quips, “Surely the coroner’s report should read, ‘He took his own life after sober and careful contemplation of the f***ing shambles it had become.'” So why, when careful deliberation reveals compelling arguments for suicide, should they step back from the ledge?
Hornby doesn’t have an answer to this question. There isn’t any good reason to step back from the ledge — not if one’s arguments for being up there are absolutely sound. But it’s a big decision; it’s hard to consider all the alternatives, and the longer one waits, the greater the chance that one will step back anyway. Life has a way of continually reasserting itself — not in the flower-blooming-in-the-desert kind of way, but rather in the endless and irritating procession of practical problems that crowds the margins of our days.
Martin has wire-cutters and a stepladder to get over the barrier on top of the building, but when Maureen asks if she can use the ladder when he’s through, they have to work out a way to get it back over the fence. “That’s what everything comes down to,” Martin says, “ladders.” And we know well enough what he means. “You can reduce the most enormous topics down to the tiniest parts.”
Even there at the end, or what he imagines to be the end, there are problems that have to be solved and details that have to be considered. And we know, because we have the story in his own words, that sometime afterward he steps back from the ledge and goes back down to the street. The same things that drive him up there in the first place — chance, circumstance and some kind of recklessness or fatalism — have the power to bring him down again.
In the end, this is not some doe-eyed meditation on the essential beauty of an earthly existence. It is a sober and careful contemplation of the shambles life can become, and it’s a discussion of the rhythms of our days, the little details; the way that worry weighs us down, success bears us up, and chance shoves us along into the future.
Shirking the usual platitudes, Nick Hornby produces a novel whose central thesis seems to be that the world is grossly, almost intolerably imperfect. But that’s OK, or it had better be. You have your 70 or 80 years, God willing, to fill with worry and regret, and life races to an end whether you hurry it along or not. But it’s still a long way down, even when you’re standing on top of a tower block. If you can’t decide which way to go, incidentally, you can kill some time by arguing, fighting or reading a good book.