Oh popular authors, I’m always so nervous about you. I mean, on the one hand I always figure that if so many people like you, there must be something good about you. But then, so many people like harlequin romances, and Dane Cook, and Big Brother. People are idiots. Even when they aren’t, they can’t always be trusted. My friend Amy actually loved Confessions of a Slacker Wife, and my husband really liked The Innocent Man, a.k.a. Was John Grisham Always This Bad And I Just Didn’t Notice?, and my friend Karen lists as her top three books ever Eli Wiesel’s Night (awesome), The Kite Runner (also awesome), and friggin Million Little Pieces (total crap). These are bright, funny people. I voluntarily hang out with them. But they actually enjoy books that are total tripe, so the fact that people on the whole enjoy Nick Hornby’s books means nothing.
I enjoyed the hell out of Long Way Down. Seriously, I did not expect to love it this much. And then a friend asked me what I was reading, and all I had to say was ‘This book about four people who, separately, decide to throw themselves off a tall building on New Years Eve, but then they all get up there and, hey, there’s three other people up here. Well, this is awkward’ and now she’s going to read it, because how hilarious is that? What a ridiculous and somehow totally believable premise!
Ok, so it’s New Years Eve, and Martin (because he is an alcoholic ex-morning-show-host who has been in all the papers lately for sleeping with a fifteen-year-old who, to his credit, told him she was sixteen, which isn’t exactly illegal, but whose wife left him for it anyways, and took their two kids), Maureen (because her son Matty is a vegetable, always has been and always will be, and she hasn’t done anything worth mentioning in the last twenty years besides care for him and become socially awkward), JJ (because his band broke up and his girlfriend left him, although the reason he initially gives is that he has CCR, a totally fictional disease and also a wicked 60’s rock band) and Jess (because she has family and relationship problems, but mostly just because she is young and nuts and it seemed like a good idea at the time) have all lugged themselves to the top of Toppers’ House with the intention of doing themselves in. But then, how do you toss yourself off a building when there’s other people hanging around? No one wants to be the first, and for sure no one wants to be the last. So they get to chatting and eventually decide to go solve Jess’s most immediate problem, which has something to do with a boy and an explanation.
That solved, they begin finding other things to do, other things to tether them to the earth and keep them from jumping. Oh sure, they still talk about it, and even arrange to meet back on Toppers’ on Valentine’s Day so they can finally give themselves the old heave-ho. But with one thing and another, it’s really hard to find time to kill yourself, you know?
At one point, Maureen (she of the vegetable son) says, ‘You’d think this would be the story of four people who met because they were unhappy, and wanted to help each other. But it hadn’t been…it had been the story of four people who met because they were unhappy and then swore at each other.’ And it never changes. Martin begins the book by sitting on Jess’s head (to prevent her from jumping, which is ostensibly kind but kind of a rough way to go about things) and the last page finds her listing all the ways that he’s failed at life.
And yet, even though the characters are perverted (Martin), coarse (Jess), lazy (JJ), and really insurmountably lame (Maureen), and none of them says more than two kind words to each other the entire 333 pages, they’re terribly endearing. It’s their complete reluctance to be together combined with their absolute need for each other that sets the stage for all of the hilarious moments (of which there are many) and all of the poignant ones (of which there are mercifully few). Nothing really is solved, and no one lives happily ever after, but I closed the book with such a sense of sweet satisfaction. I never do this, because I think it’s cheating, but I’m going to steal a line from the New York Times Book Review: ‘Hornby is a writer who dares to be witty, intelligent and emotionally generous all at once.’