Topping Off


For the last few years Nick Hornby has vied with Martin Amis for the unofficial title of Most Influential Novelist in Britain. That Hornby seems to be winning says a lot for the general mental health of the British reading public. His infusion of pop culture into mainstream British letters has been a refreshing shot in the arm to a literary establishment fixated on artistic and political issues—class struggle, tradition versus postmodernism, etc.—that should have been blown out the garret window by the Beatles.

The problem, of course, with having your finger on the pulse of pop culture is that the pulse changes so quickly. The references to movies and rock singers in his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy already seem a bit dated, and given his apparent crankiness with rap and other recent musical subgenres, it might be time for Hornby and some of his characters to do a little growing up.

As readers of A Long Way Down, perhaps the funniest and most exhilarating novel ever written about group suicide, will be delighted to learn, this isn’t a problem. The title refers to a suicide jump from the roof of a building known as Toppers’ House, where four characters, three English and one American, have come on New Year’s Eve to commit suicide. Martin, a former television personality, watches his career go down in flames with the disclosure of his affair with a 15-year-old girl; Jess is the burned-out daughter of a minor government official; a failed American rocker, J.J. finds Britain a convenient place to mope; and Maureen, a middle-aged single mother, fights depression from caring for her disabled son. All of them—likable middle-class self-absorbed misfits—are recognizable as types to readers of Hornby’s previous four novels. Hornby allows each his or her fair share of humanity and humor. Maureen, for instance, wants to jump off the building holding a copy of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, “[n]ot only because it would have been kinda’ cool, and would’ve added a little mystique to my death, but because it might have been a good way of getting more people to read it.”

There will be objections that Hornby’s characters are a bit too eloquent and witty to be typical suicides, but after all, they are characters in a novel and, more than that, characters in a Nick Hornby novel. As such, there’s no reason to think that they would off themselves—or decide not to—before getting in some incisive and highly quotable verbal licks. Only a cynic would not see
A Long Way Down as a long way up from much modern fiction, which seems to have been written to supply us with reasons to jump.