A Long Way Down (2005)

By Nick Hornby

So what is the prevailing opinion of Michiko Kakutani? After finishing Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down, I dug up her review and was suprised to find a piece that is, at best, a witless and contemptuous hammer job. Previously, I’d known her only for her thoughtful reviews of “high,” “literary” fiction by the likes of Philip Roth, Richard Ford, and Don Delillo. She seems much more at home there, and is certainly more willing to give those authors the benefit of the doubt, not to mention the benefit of her full attention and energy.

That Kakutani dislikes Hornby’s book is just fine with me. I didn’t care for it too much myself. And, actually, scathing reviews are often the most fun to read, especially when the critic displays in abundance the exact qualities lacking in the art. Is anything more fun than watching a humorless spewer of banalities be pantsed by a clever critic? That’s not what we get in Kakutani’s review, though.

This plot summary fascinates me:

The premise of “A Long Way Down” feels like a formulaic idea for a cheesy made-for-television movie: one New Year’s Eve, four depressed people make their way to the roof of a London building known as Toppers’ House, with the intent of jumping to their deaths. One is a snarky former television host named Martin (think of Joe Pantoliano or a younger Tom Selleck in the role), who recently served a jail term for having sex with a 15-year-old girl. One is a long-suffering single mother named Maureen (think Sada Thompson), who spends all her time caring for her brain-damaged son. One is a foul-mouthed teenager named Jess (think Shannen Doherty on speed), who is constantly doing and saying wildly inappropriate things. And one is a geeky, wannabe rock star named JJ (think David Schwimmer), who’s aggrieved about his failure to become Mick Jagger or Keith Richards.

I recently read an interesting critique of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral that pointed out how, despite its being set amid the turmoil of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the novel, surprisingly, has no music in it. When Swede Levov sneaks into the bedroom of his radical teenaged daughter, he doesn’t find a stack of Jimi Hendrix and CCR records. Instead, Roth gives us scenes like the one in The Human Stain, where Nathan Zuckerman and Coleman Silk dance to big band music from the ’40s. Roth, the critic argues, seems to have stopped listening to new music just before Elvis hit the scene and, as a result, spoils ever so slightly the hard-fought authenticity of his historical recreations.

Judging by the paragraph snipped above, Kakutani seems to have lost touch with popular culture just before Elvis hit the porcelain floor of his Graceland bathroom. I had to look up Sada Thompson, best remembered as the mother on the Kristy McNichol TV series, Family (1976-80). And who is reminded of a younger Tom Selleck by anything these days, let alone by a novel set in contemporary London? With her anachronistic stabs at snark — really, who other than Robin Williams would think “on speed” qualifies as wit? — Kakutani comes off like a junior high guidance counselor with a comb-over (think Horatio Sanz in the “Wake Up Wakefield!” skits, natch).

I’d be fine dismissing the review with, “Well, Kakutani is clearly just the wrong person to review a novel by Nick Hornby, arch purveyor of all-things-hip-and-now,” except that her cluelessness has caused her to fundamentally misread the book. To picture Tom Selleck when you read A Long Way Down is not just . . . well . . . creepy, it’s objectively wrong. It’s like saying, “I didn’t care for Lolita. That Humbert Humbert guy reminded me of Alan Alda, and I just couldn’t picture Hawkeye doing that to a little girl.” (Not that I’m comparing Hornby to Nabokov, but you get the point.) Martin is bitterly, aggressively sarcastic; he’s world-weary, arrogant, and vain in the way only a disgraced host of a British breakfast program can be world-weary, arrogant, and vain. He’s Eddie Izzard. Or, if you’re a film producer with a lot of money on the line, he’s Hugh Grant the day after his encounter with Divine Brown or the drunken, mean-spirited Colin Firth of Where the Truth Lies. Martin wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a Hawaiian floral shirt, Magnum P.I.-style.

The same goes for JJ, the American rock star whose band breaks up after a decade of just-south-of-mainstream success. I assume Kakutani calls him “geeky” because he’s the most introspective of the lot and because he adores the same serious fiction she does (JJ namedrops Delillo, The Sportswriter, and American Pastoral). Hornby doesn’t spend more than a sentence or two describing the physical appearance of his protagonists, but we’re told that JJ is tall, good-looking, and long-haired. He’s decidedly not-geeky, but I suspect that only readers who are attuned to Hornby’s codes can see it. “Putting on my faded black jeans and my old Drive-By Truckers T-shirt was my way of being heard by the right people,” JJ says, and it works. Kakutani misses the call, but the girl JJ hooks up with for a one-night-stand doesn’t. David Schwimmer? Really?

And there’s another thing. Kakutani writes:

With the exception of Maureen – who comes across as truly disconsolate over her son’s plight – none of these people seems genuinely suicidal, or, for that matter, genuinely depressed. Martin is the sort of guy who jots down “Kill myself?” in a Courses of Action list. And Jess treats leaping off a building as another impulsive act – not unlike getting smashed and mouthing off at strangers, or having a high-decibel fight with her parents in public.

None of these folks seems to have given any thought to getting therapy, taking antidepressants or finding a practical solution to their problems. It never occurs to Maureen – who is not without money or friends – that she might get help in taking care of her son. And it never occurs to JJ that there might be a middle ground between making the cover of Rolling Stone and ending it all.

I agree with almost everything in the first paragraph, everything but the exception she’s allowed for Maureen, and Hornby would likely agree. They’re not suicidal; all four want desperately to live but can’t seem to find a way to manage. That’s kind of the point of the novel. I think. If they don’t seem “genuinely depressed,” it’s likely a result of Hornby’s decision to allow each character to tell his or her own story. Self-awareness isn’t a real strong suit for any of these characters, and Hornby isn’t one to dwell in sentiment. Rather, I like A Long Way Down best when we, the readers, are allowed the benefit of ironic distance, giving us a chance to see the self-destructive consequences of each character’s actions, even (especially) when he or she is unable to see them for him- or herself. There’s a nice scene near the end of the novel when the foul-mouthed teen, Jess, having reached her breaking point, finds herself alone on a street corner, smoking and muttering profanity. “It would be very easy for me to be a nutter,” she thinks. “I’m not saying it would be a piece of piss, living that life — I don’t mean that. I just mean that I had a lot in common with some of the people you see sitting on pavements swearing and rolling cigarettes.” A lot in common, indeed.

What’s clear from Kakutani’s review is that she was unable to muster the slightest bit of sympathy for Hornby’s characters. How else to explain the contempt she shows them in that second paragraph — the way she so snobbishly dismisses “these folks” for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and finding a rational, practical “solution to their problems”? Clearly, Hornby is partly to blame for her lack of empathy. His narrative strategy is a gimmick that fails to work at least as often as it succeeds, and I likewise found myself frustrated and annoyed from time to time by the voices in these particular heads. (There’s a reason Vardaman’s chapters are so short in As I Lay Dying.) But Kakutani’s reading seems lazy to me. She’s misjudged these folks — not to mention Hornby’s intentions — and is punching herself silly, chasing after her straw men.